'Rock star of neutrinos' to appear on 'Nova'

  • PHOTO COURTESY OF REIDAR HAHNSam Zeller is the deputy division head of Fermilab's Neutrino Division and has been at Fermilab since 2010.

    PHOTO COURTESY OF REIDAR HAHNSam Zeller is the deputy division head of Fermilab's Neutrino Division and has been at Fermilab since 2010.

Updated 9/30/2021 9:48 AM

There was a good chance Sam Zeller was going to make it big somewhere.

Admitted into the Glenbrook Academy of International Studies, a rigorous, four-year program for talented Glenbrook South and Glenbrook North students emphasizing the humanities, Zeller thought it'd be practicing law.


Until her senior year at Glenbrook South, 1989-90, when she took John Lewis' AP physics class.

"It just completely blew my mind," Zeller said.

The hook nearly set, she joined a field trip led by Lewis to the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory -- Fermilab, near Batavia.

In her mind, science meant people shuffling around in white lab coats, quietly mixing liquids.

But here in the Fermilab control room was a man in the middle of a crowd of people, talking on two telephones, one to each ear.

"I thought, Wow, this looks very different," Zeller said. "A huge hubbub, people talking about physics, so much excitement."

Now, Zeller is "the rock star of neutrinos," Lewis said, the deputy head of the Neutrino Division at Fermilab. She's risen to her position after being hired as an associate scientist in 2010 out of postdoctoral studies at Columbia University in New York.

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"She was a strong student, but what set her apart is she found a passion," said Lewis, who retired in 2016 after 33 years at Glenbrook South.

Sam Zeller -- parents Gerry and Pat named her Geralyn but quickly nicknamed her for her grandfather because "he was bald and I was bald," she said -- will show her passion for neutrinos in an upcoming episode of the PBS program, "Nova."

The show, "Particles Unknown," will air at 9 p.m. Oct. 6. Zeller said executive producer Henry Fraser was interested in these mysterious subatomic particles produced by the sun, by exploding stars -- and in controlled accelerator collisions at Fermilab. Zeller said these tiny building blocks of matter influence how the universe expands.

"By producing beams of neutrinos at Fermilab, we hope to unlock some of the mysteries of why the universe looks the way it does," she said.


She is among several scientists who will explain these mysteries on "Particles Unknown," which drew Fraser to Batavia for several days of tours and interviews in January 2020.

He was also interested in the MicroBooNe experiments Zeller is involved with, an international collaboration attempting to identify new, unknown types of neutrinos. She expects results before the end of the year.

"Any time you discover a new particle it's major," she said.

(Later this decade she'll also participate in DUNE, the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment. In that, Fermilab will blast neutrinos 800 miles to a detector in South Dakota a mile underground.)

"I'm looking forward to this show because Fermilab really changed my career path," said Zeller, now living in Geneva while her parents still live in Glenview.

"I hope that this show can influence a lot of young women and men who are in grade school or high school and maybe have them think creatively about a path in science. Hopefully this show will expand their imaginations and bring Fermilab to them."

It still does work that way. Jeff Rylander, a former colleague of Lewis' who is an AP physics teacher at Glenbrook South and the instructional supervisor of its science department, said he's taken many a class on that Fermilab field trip. One of his students went on to study nuclear physics at MIT as a result.

Rylander recalled a physics field trip in March 2018.

"One of the highlights was we got to hear from a scientist, and the scientist was Sam Zeller. That was really special for our students to see one of their own, who was sitting in their seat so to speak, a couple decades beforehand," Rylander said.

Rylander started at Glenbrook South in 2003, 13 years after Zeller graduated. He still shares the capacity to influence, like Lewis and another of Zeller's high school teachers, retired calculus teacher Craig Shaw, who got her "thinking about thinking," she said.

"My hat goes off to high school teachers who shape people's minds like that," Zeller said.

"Glenbrook South had a huge impact on me that I look back on very fondly. Those teachers had a big influence on where I ended up, and I really think I wouldn't be on that Nova program had it not been for Mr. Lewis and his physics class, opening my eyes to that career path, opening my eyes to science. I'm very grateful."

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