Assistant professors Rachel Yohay and Ted Kolberg are partners in research and life
By Amy Robinson
On the border between France and Switzerland, nestled in a massive tunnel 300 feet underground, lies an astonishing piece of physics technology. Stretching more than 16 miles, the Large Hadron Collider at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, is the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator.
Physicists from around the world travel to Geneva to conduct research at the LHC, studying the remarkable results that occur when beams of high-energy protons or ions cross paths and particles collide at colossal speeds.
For Florida State University assistant professors Rachel Yohay and Ted Kolberg, CERN was where their own paths first crossed more than a decade ago. Today, the two are husband and wife, and a force in the Department of Physics.
Long before falling for each other, Rachel and Ted were already head over heels for physics.
“I got interested in particle physics reading Leon Lederman’s book ‘The God Particle’ in grade school,” Ted said. “Discovering the fundamental laws of nature sounded like a great adventure.”
For Rachel, an unforgettable teacher brought the subject to life.
“AP Physics was my favorite class. I loved learning how systems in nature could be understood with physical models, then using math — another beloved subject — to solve problems,” Rachel said.
After high school, Rachel earned her B.S. in physics from Caltech and pursued her Ph.D. at the University of Virginia. Ted earned his physics degree from Stanford University and completed a doctorate at Notre Dame.
Graduate school sweethearts
During graduate school, Ted and Rachel were each presented the opportunity to travel to Geneva to conduct research at CERN’s Compact Muon Solenoid, CMS, a particle detector that allows physicists to see phenomena produced during LHC collisions. Both jumped at the chance.
“We met 13 years ago in a small mountain chalet rented for U.S. researchers working on the CMS experiment,” Ted said. Overlapping projects and shared office space at CERN led Rachel and Ted to bond quickly over their mutual passion for physics.
Things accelerated and 2016 was a milestone year — Rachel and Ted got engaged and landed assistant professorships in FSU’s Department of Physics.
“I worked alongside FSU physicists for over a decade, going back to my graduate school days,” Ted said. “FSU has been active in the CMS experiment since the late 1990s during initial planning. When a job opened, we agreed FSU would be a good place to continue our careers.”
For Rachel, Florida State felt right from the start.
“The biggest draw for me was the camaraderie and collegiality I witnessed among the physics faculty,” Rachel said. “This university is extraordinarily supportive of dual-career couples.”
Harrison Prosper, Kirby W. Kemper Endowed Professor of Physics at FSU and chair of the CMS Collaboration Board, met Ted and Rachel when they first arrived.
“Their stellar reputations preceded them. I was eager to have them join the FSU High Energy Physics group, which I led at the time,” Prosper said.
As first-rate experimental physicists, Ted and Rachel bring energy, talent and a can-do spirit to the FSUHEP group, he continued. The couple bolstered the group’s ability to engage with state-of-the-art technology through ongoing involvement with CERN.
“Because of Ted and Rachel, the physics department is plugged into an ambitious project by the CMS Collaboration to build the most sophisticated particle detector ever constructed,” Prosper said.
Colleagues and confidantes
The pair married in 2017 and welcomed son Nathan the following year. While Florida State has been their home for the past four years, Ted and Rachel find new joy in their work every day.
“My job is new and exciting to me, and I sense my older colleagues look to me to carry our shared research field forward. It makes the work feel worthwhile,” Rachel said.
Ted added, “It’s fun to take on new challenges. Working with the students at FSU is a real privilege.”
Aside from shared enthusiasm for the work, Ted and Rachel’s colleagues say they are well matched because of their complementary expertise.
“Each nudges the other to do better through gentle competition, but their commitment to helping each other is evident,” Prosper said.