Pilat Becomes Deputy Director of Accelerator Division

Fulvia Pilat
Deputy Director, Accelerator Operations, Research & Development Division

Born in Trieste, Italy, near the border of Slovenia, Fulvia Pilat had the advantage of living in a city that was a crossroads of the world. "This was not typical Italian culture," she explained, "although my mother stayed home and my father worked. There were many experiences available to me. My parents were interesting people, with some college education, and my mother, especially, was open-minded and lively."

In what she refers to as her "life before science," Pilat had an affinity for art and philosophy. "There was," as she puts it, "no making transmitters in the basement for me."

Nonetheless, there was the defining moment in her life that led her to a career in science. A good friend's father was a particle physicist and she attended lectures with her friend at the nearby university and became fascinated.

She was unsure about her career until she entered college. Still into visual arts and philosophy, Pilat realized that the determining factor in her choice boiled down to this: "I could have done art, but physics was a challenge," she recalled. "This would not be a 'vanilla' career for a girl."

It was also, she realized, a ticket out. "I wanted to see the world," she noted. "I knew that physics would offer me the opportunity to travel, and there was a lot of the world to be seen."

She started at the University of Trieste and during her third year there she qualified to spend the summer working on a high-energy physics experiment at CERN with the SPS collider. "For me," she noted, "this was a convergence of opportunity and interest."

She moved to Geneva for her Ph.D., with her work becoming more and more focused on accelerator physics. Immediately after finishing her doctorate, the opportunity came to move to the United States and work at Los Alamos for several months. She was then awarded a fellowship at CERN and decided to return to CERN for a few more years.

She was offered positions at several U.S. labs, and was eventually lured to Waxahachie, Texas, to work at the site of the Superconducting Super Collider, which was set to become the world's largest and most energetic collider, with a planned ring circumference of 54 miles and an energy of 20 TeV per beam of protons.

"It was risky, it was inspiring," she said of not just the SSC project but of her decision to go. Three and a half years later, the project was shelved and Pilat moved on to Brookhaven, where she signed on just as that institution’s largest accelerator, the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, was coming on line.

"I was able to see the machine being built, the final stages of design, the shake out, the commissioning, the early operations," she pointed out. Physicists from around the world conduct experiments at RHIC to explore a state of matter that existed one millionth of a second after the Big Bang. She became the run coordinator, responsible for the accelerator’s performance.

"I must have done something good," Pilat noted with a laugh, "because they made me head of operations." Overseeing a staff of about 30, Pilat was responsible for the smooth operations and system maintenance of the 2.4 mile-round collider and three smaller accelerators that prepare ions for acceleration to nearly the speed of light in RHIC.

In addition, Pilat was coordinator of the Accelerator Physics Experimental Program at RHIC, in which she led about 40 physicists and engineers who developed new techniques and instrumentation to improve the operation of RHIC and to advance future accelerators.

She had married while at CERN, and has three daughters. Katharina was born in Geneva and graduated this year from Smith College, Alexandra was born in Texas and Angelica was born on Long Island.

Pilat's husband, Michael, made a career shift when the family moved to Long Island, and now owns a trading company based in Manhattan, where the couple keeps an apartment on the Upper East Side.

The family has settled on the water in Seaford, Va. "We've finally landed on water, like I always wanted," she said with a smile. The location allows the family a life of balance, and gives Pilat ready access to New York in order to indulge her passions of shopping and fine dining.

Pilat joined Jefferson Lab as deputy director of the Accelerator Operations, Research & Development Division, and is currently coordinating lab-wide preparations for a six-month accelerator shutdown starting next spring to allow for 12 GeV Upgrade work to take place in CEBAF. Her entry into the JLab community was gradual, dividing her time between Brookhaven and the lab beginning in early 2010. "It's very good that they could come to this agreement," she noted. She moved to full-time status at the lab in August.

Of her job and the opportunities at the lab, Pilat said, "Jefferson Lab is diversifying, expanding its expertise and impact. This is an exciting time, with new proposals and new ideas. The 12 GeV Upgrade was certainly part of the attraction, and it's exciting to go through construction and commissioning of an accelerator all over again," she said.

It's not all work, of course, for this exceptionally stylish woman. She ticks off her loves easily: there's fitness (she's into weight lifting and is in the gym almost every day) and is still into art, which she's "keeping on the back burner," and then there are the cars – a little convertible with stick shift that she calls "La Petite" and the big power car that goes by "Le Brut."

"I'm glad to be here. I really like it," she noted. "There's going to be a positive impact from the work here. The people – and the environment – are really dynamic."

By Judi Tull
Feature writer