AJ Zec is a graduate researcher and PhD candidate in nuclear physics currently affiliated with the University of Virginia. Their advisor is Professor Kent Paschke. Their current research interests include experimental nuclear physics, accelerator physics, STEM education and science outreach.
AJ became interested in physics in high school when they were invited by their teacher to create an independent experiment detecting cosmic muons. In 2011 they enrolled at the University of Massachusetts Amherst quickly deciding to major in physics. They first became involved in research in 2012, joining professor Andrea Pocar's group participating on in the Darkside collaboration, with its experiment at the LNGS laboratory in Italy. They graudated UMass in May 2015 with a bachelor of science in physics, and a bachelor of arts in computer science.
AJ enrolled as a graduate student in physics at the University of Virginia in the Fall of 2015. After their first year they joined up with professor Paschke's group, participating on the PREX-II and CREX experiments, measuring neutron skins employing the parity violating electron scattering technique. They are currently involved in maintaining the compton polarimeter DAQ, data and analysis necessary to control key systematics for these two experiments.
In 2012, AJ joined the research group of professors Andrea Pocar and Laura Cadonati. The focus of the research was the Darkside collaboration, a direct-detection dark matter experiment being developed for the Gran Sasso laboratory. Their first job was interpret and sort the results of the group's geant4 simulations. After gaining experience, their tasks changed to more analysis-minded operations.
Between May and July 2014, AJ was given the opportunity to work directly at the Gran Sasso lab, helping develop a robust analysis for the collaboration, as well as getting involved in physical laboratory science for the first time.
Outside the research laboratory AJ was involved in teaching and developing lesson plans for professors teaching physics to a general audience.
Darkside at Gran Sasso
Darkside is a dark matter direct-detection experiment that searches for WIMP dark matter using a liquid argon scintillator. Darkside's conceptual design is a large TPC with a volume of distilled liquid 40Ar. A WIMP interaction should deposit enough energy into an atom of 40Ar to ionize it, causing a scintillation event. The ionized electron then drifts through a constant electric field until it interacts again, producing a secondary scintillation event.
At the time AJ was at Gran Sasso, the collaboration was busy deploying its second prototype, "Darkside-50" so named due to its 50 kg fiducial volume of argon. At the time, the TPC employed argon obtained from above ground with a high 39Ar impurity. At the time, development of a real functional dark-matter worthy analysis was a significant project, one in which AJ found themselves involved in.
AJ enrolled in the University of Virginia graduate program in the summer of 2015, and became involved with professor Kent Paschke's group in spring 2016. They have been involved with the parity experiment team at Jefferson Lab ever since.
PREX-II and CREX
AJ's first involvement in the PREX-II and CREX experiments was to give feedback on the ongoing CAD development of the experiment's target region. They helped design new magnetic and radiation shielding in order to control the effects of the new beamline collimator addition, which had not been present in PREX-I. After a while, they transitioned to also developing the prexsim geant4 simulation to both design and test new shielding concepts. Their primary duty before the experiment installation was to produce figures of, and inform technical staff about expected radiation doses on several key hardware components, as well as to the site boundary.
Since early 2019, AJ has worked closely with the compton polarimeter, specifically in regards to the photon detector and DAQ. They trained on the photon detector operation under the tutelage of professor Brian Quinn and Juan Carlos Cornejo. Since moving to JLab, they have been the primary on-site contact for issues involving the photon detector and its DAQ, as well as lead developer of the online analysis.
Outside of technology and the workplace AJ enjoys writing, as well as working on hobbyist electronics. They also have done amateur graphic design work. They have participated in multiple conferences and conventions, in capacity as both a presenter and staff member. AJ is also an amateur guitarist and songwriter, is an alumnus of the University of Massachusetts Minuteman Marching Band.