University of Minnesota
School of Physics & Astronomy


Willing to learn

Jan Zirnstein
Jan Zirnstein
Alex Schumann

Jan Zirnstein says that when he started his job on the NOvA experiment he had no experience, apart from a 1000-level computer science course, in computer programming. Now he’s writing analysis software. He says that it is not unusual for students in experimental physics groups to arrive with little more than a willingness to learn. “After a month of sitting down and working on it, you’d be amazed at how much you have learned.”

He is currently designing a program that will do electron shower reconstruction. Zirnstein explains that electron neutrinos in their final state kick up showers of photons in the detector. “We know what the shower would look like, we are just programming the computer to recognize the pattern, since we’ll be looking at millions and millions of events.”

Prior to working on analysis software, Zirnstein worked summers on the NOvA experiment, as part of the School’s internship program for graduate students. The program allows graduate students to try out different areas of research, and since the internships are sponsored by the department, it allows research faculty to get some free labor. Zirnstein spent his first summer as a graduate student at Fermilab installing the prototype detector. The prototype detector acts as a test bed, which allows physicists to figure out what kinds of events they will see during operation of the detector and how best to optimize their software now so that they can get the best data later on.

The following summer Zirnstein worked in the NOvA research and development laboratory on quality assurance. His job was in part to make sure that the huge far detector detector panels, which are fifty feet long, were perfectly flat. When the panels are assembled into modules they need to have a tolerance of less than a thousandth of an inch or the detector will not be stable. The NOvA far detector will be the largest plastic structure in the world, when it is assembled, in Ash River, Minnesota.

When asked what Zirnstein plans to work on next, he says “it’s difficult to predict.” The modules are just now being assembled into blocks in the far detector. “During this so-called commissioning period it’s all hands on deck." Zirnstein says it’s possible that he may be spending some time in Ash River (Minnesota).