Particle physics laboratory

Paulos is preparing to retire from his position as director of the Physical Sciences Laboratory | To research

Job September 7, 2022

From Bob Paulos’ perspective, this was a banner year for field corn.

He recalls that when he left his office at Stoughton’s Physical Sciences Laboratory (PSL) for vacation earlier this summer, the corn outside his window was only a few feet tall. When he returned two weeks later, he towered over 10 feet.

Paulos will retire from the PSL on October 1 after six years as manager. Terry Benson, instrumentation manager at PSL, has been named interim director.

Paulos says that while he will miss the view of the vast cornfields that surround PSL about 10 miles south of Madison, he will be mostly missed by the people he worked with there and on campus.

“I feel lucky to have worked on really interesting projects with great teams over the past 40 years,” says Paulos. “UW-Madison has been a great place to have a career. And it’s because of the people.”

Nestled in farmland, the PSL is a hidden gem. In the shade of the huge corn trees, about 40 employees, including engineers, highly skilled technicians such as welders and machinists, and several on-site students, tinker, tap and even tape as needed to create unique, often very sophisticated research tools.

PSL staff

PSL staff.

PSL is a research and development laboratory attached to the Office of Research and Higher Education (OVCRGE). It has served campus and external partners since 1967 and provides a wide range of services, including consulting, systems engineering, project management, computer-aided design and analysis, custom manufacturing, and scientific instrument calibration services.

The Stoughton site has a large machinery and electronics workshop to support projects of any size and complexity. PSL staff are both problem solvers and artists. Paulos says they amaze him and make him proud to come to work every day. He says he feels good leaving PSL in Benson’s hands after working with him since Benson was a student at UW-Madison.

Stoughton and its cornfields are far – very, very far – from the very cold but magnificent IceCube neutrino observatory at the South Pole. Paulos was associate director and project manager of the IceCube program, before being appointed director of PSL

Paulos was instrumental in collaborating with Francis Halzen, UW-Madison professor of physics and longtime principal investigator for IceCube, to write the grant to create IceCube. IceCube is headquartered at UW-Madison and is supported by the National Science Foundation and an international collaboration. PSL built about 3,500 of the more than 5,500 detectors buried in ice at the South Pole for IceCube, which obtained the first view of a subatomic particle called the neutrino that originated beyond our galaxy.

Prior to IceCube, Paulos worked alongside astronauts and engineers on NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope – UW-Madison designed and built one of the original axial science instruments for Hubble. He is proud to know that he played a part in the spectacular photos of the Cosmos that Hubble has captured over the years.

He credits the Space Science and Engineering Center (SSEC) campus for giving him one of his first jobs on campus – his other job was in the school of engineering’s fatigue lab where he tested materials properties – as a student here in the late 1980s, and the opportunity to connect with the Hubble Project as a young man.

Paulos, one of many badgers in his family, earned a degree in mechanical engineering from UW in 1982 and thought he’d land a job at a major aerospace engineering company. Instead, he stayed and spent the past 40 years working for various campus units and traveling the world while doing it. How many other people can say they’ve been to the South Pole four times?

PSL has also participated in the construction of particle physics detectors at CERN, Fermilab and elsewhere. The center built important pieces of the Large Hadron Collider, which led to the discovery of an elementary particle called the Higgs boson.

PSL is part of an international collaboration called Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE). More recently, PSL made significant contributions to the LUX-ZEPLIN (LZ) experiment, an underground dark matter detector at the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF) in Lead, South Dakota.

But PSL does not just support massive and complex projects such as LZ, IceCube or DUNE. It also supports research at UW-Madison related to limnology, medical, veterinary, geological, and other biological sciences. Some 6,000 projects, large and small, have been carried out over the laboratory’s history.

Paulos says it was the connections and support he received that made UW-Madison his home.

He worked with Steve Ackerman, Vice Chancellor for Research and Higher Education (VCRGE), for more than 25 years, first at SSEC and now as Center Director reporting to Ackerman. Prior to becoming the VCRGE, Ackerman served as Acting Director of SSEC and for 18 years served as Director of the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies located within SSEC.

Paulos thanks Ackerman and calls on OVCRGE staff to support PSL in creative problem solving and finding ways to reduce administrative burden as the center navigates complex local, national and international collaborations.

“Bob left a significant mark on UW-Madison, earning international respect for his leadership and resourcefulness,” Ackerman says. “Bob leaves PSL in great shape to continue this legacy and continue UW-Madison’s contribution to exploring and supporting exciting research on the surface, underground and in space.”

In retirement, Paulos plans to turn his attention to his cabin in Vilas County and a “cabin” on 100 acres in Adams County. He has many unfinished projects yet to be started on the properties. He bought a fishing boat over the summer – walleye have been warned – and will explore another frontier in the future.

Instead of contemplating the mysteries of space such as the origin of neutrinos from the cornfields of Stoughton or the ice of the South Pole, he will now spend his retirement in the wilderness of northern Wisconsin.


By Natasha Kassulke, [email protected]