Faculty Spotlight: Harrison Prosper

| Thu, 06/24/21
Florida State University Department of Physics Kirby W. Kemper Endowed Professor Harrison Prosper.
Florida State University Department of Physics Kirby W. Kemper Endowed Professor Harrison Prosper. Photo by Bill Lax.

Harrison Prosper is the Kirby W. Kemper Endowed Professor from the Department of Physics, part of the College of Arts and Sciences. While Prosper teaches undergraduate- and graduate-level physics, much of his joy stems from his role in experimental particle physics discoveries. He earned his doctoral degree in experimental physics from the University of Manchester in 1980 and was elected as a Fellow of the American Physical Society in 2002 and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2014.

Tell us a little about your background.

I was born in a small coastal village in Dominica, a tiny island in the Caribbean, which was an outpost of the British Empire at the time. When I was five or six years old, I moved to England to receive an education and eventually earn my doctoral degree. During my time as a doctoral student in 1979, I worked on an experiment at DESY, a research lab in Hamburg, Germany, where I contributed to the discovery of a particle called the gluon. Shortly after completing my degree, I was an instructor for a year at an English middle school where I discovered my passion for teaching and met my wife. After my stint as a teacher, I joined the Rutherford Appleton Lab in 1982 and moved to Grenoble, France to do experiments at the Institut Laue Langevin. A year later I visited CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (for the first of many times) in Geneva, Switzerland. In 1986, my wife, my two-year old daughter and I moved to Batavia, Ill., though I was a postdoc at Virginia Tech. I later joined Fermilab to contribute to the discovery of the top quark, the most massive of all observed elementary particles. I joined FSU in 1993 to continue my particle research. Fast forward to 2012, I was a contributor to the momentous discovery at CERN of the Higgs boson, the fundamental particle associated with the Higgs field that gives mass to other fundamental particles such as electrons and quarks.

When did you first become interested in topics like cosmology — the study of the origin and development of the universe — and high-energy physics?

I can pin-point the exact day it happened! It was July 20, 1969. I had just turned 13, and I knew I wanted to be a part of whatever made the moon landing possible. That summer, my parents bought me a small telescope, which I used constantly to observe the night sky. Later, at the University of Manchester, I had open access to the refractor at the Godlee Observatory. Through my passion for astronomy, I came to understand my true interests lie in the fundamentals; hence my move to high-energy physics.

What are your current research interests?

My current research involves searching for evidence of new particles at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. I also develop advanced statistical methods and machine learning to analyze high-energy physics data. A new area of interest is the automation of research in physics, which will become increasingly necessary for scientists to manage the large quantities of data we produce. Occasionally, I return to my interest in cosmology as I work with undergraduates looking for out-of-the-box research projects.

What do you want the public to know about your research? Why is your topic important?

I want the public to view my work as a cultural activity, no different conceptually from music, literature, or art in that it is an activity that enriches human civilizations. Even if the scientific knowledge we gain about the world does not lead to immediate material benefits, the sense of wonder that arises from this cultural activity is reason enough to engage in it. Moreover, we cannot understand the origin of the universe without high-energy physics.

What brought you to Florida State? Why do you enjoy working here?

A senior colleague at FSU encouraged me to apply to an open position in the Department of Physics, and FSU gladly welcomed me into the fold. What I enjoy most about working at FSU is the academic freedom and the supportive nature of my colleagues. During my time as head of the High Energy Physics group from 2008 through 2018, the support I received in rebuilding the program was exemplary. It continues to be a lot of fun talking with these colleagues about life. Kirby Kemper, emeritus professor in the Department of Physics, predicted I would have the time of my life when I became a grandfather. He was right!

What is your favorite part of your job and what do you find most challenging?

My favorite part is interacting with students, not just at FSU but at universities and labs around the world. It is extremely satisfying to witness the “a-ha” moment when a young person understands a complex topic. The most challenging part is making sure my family life is prioritized under the pressures of academia.

How has COVID-19 impacted your research and your role as a professor?

My research is currently my secondary focus. My primary focus since September 2019 is serving as chair until August 2021 of the Collaboration Board of CMS, an international scientific collaboration in experimental high energy physics based at CERN. My focus also switched because of COVID-19 travel restrictions. For example, my plans to send one of my students to Germany to further a research project at DESY were put on hold.

What experience has been the highlight of your career?

I have contributed to four exhilarating physics discoveries: the 1979 discovery of the gluon, the 1995 discovery of the top quark, the 2006 discovery of reactions in which a single top quark is created, and the 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson.

Who are some of your role models?

Some of my role models include my parents, who struggled all their lives but understood the opportunities of education, and many of my mentors at the University of Manchester. My dear friend and colleague Suman Beri (Panjab University, India) has guided me in best practices for working with graduate students. Maria Fidecaro, Italian experimental physicist at CERN, was an amazing role model as well as Fred James of CERN and my FSU mentors Vasken Hagopian, Jeff Owens, and Kirby Kemper from the Department of Physics. Without these colleagues and friends and their occasional tough love, I would not be where I am today.

What do you like to do in your free time?

I gaze at the night sky at every opportunity, run when I can, read non-fiction and fiction, hike on manageable mountains, and occasionally I play heavy metal electric guitar badly.

If you had to give one piece of advice to your students (of course, hopefully they learn much more than that), what would it be?

You have one life, which is short compared to the age of the universe. Therefore, find what you enjoy doing and do it very well.