Stepping down from the top

Image: Jefferson Lab
Image: Jefferson Lab

Named after Richard Glazebrook, the first director of the National Physical Laboratory, the IOP’s Glazebrook Medal looks to recognise those that are outstanding leaders in their field, and few are as deserving of this recognition as Dr Hugh Montgomery.

Currently the director of the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, Montgomery has led the laboratory as it established its electron-hadron programme and took the helm to establish the first electron-ion collider to further push the boundaries of hadron physics research.

We spoke to Montgomery ahead of this year’s IOP awards ceremony, and discussed, among other things, his achievements, his plans for the future, and a memorable phone call he once received at 6am to tell him that his experiment was on fire.

Born in Middleham, Yorkshire, in 1948, Montgomery attended Yorebridge Grammar School, and explained that it was during his sixth form studies that he first realised that one could forge a career in physics: “My memory tells me that when I was in the sixth form there was a Scientific American reprint that discussed the two-neutrino discovery by Lederman, Schwartz and Steinberger [the Nobel Prize winners in 1988 for their discovery of muon neutrinos].

“That was the first time I started to think about physics as a career, and that indeed sparked my interest in particle physics as a potential field to consider.”

He would go on to study physics at the University of Manchester, receiving first-class honours for his BSc in physics, before working on the 5 Gev Electron Synchrotron, NINA, in Daresbury, collecting data looking at inelastic electron scattering.

Upon completion of his PhD, Montgomery worked on several projects, sometimes simultaneously: he continued to work at Daresbury as a research associate, as a member of the PEP (pion electro-production) collaboration with Pisa, as a member of the CHM group, based at CERN, and also a member of the European Muon Collaboration (EMC).

“If you want to be successful in the field you need to say yes to everything,” explained Montgomery, when asked what tips he would give to young researchers who are just starting their career today. “If you want more responsibility, and you want to carve out a career for yourself, you need to start accepting opportunities and saying yes. Then people will invariably come along and ask for you to do something more.”

He took a position at CERN in 1978 as a staff member. It was during this time at CERN, when he was also spokesman for the European Muon Collaboration, that he faced what he considered as one of the biggest challenges of his career – being woken up at 6am to be told his experiment was on fire.

“The guy in the control room called me up at six in the morning and he said: ‘Hey Mont… I don’t want to talk for very long because there is a fire in the experiment’,.” Montgomery laughed. “It turned out some piece of the apparatus had caught fire, and putting the experiment back together was an enormous challenge, because we were of course trying to get it done as quickly as possible.”

The fire, after thorough investigation, was caused by a cable heating up and causing its plastic coating to melt away, which was emitting flammable fumes in the process. “The plastic, when heated, started to give off a flammable vapour. You couldn’t take the piece of plastic and ignite it when it was cold, but if you heated it for several hours, it started to change its chemical composition and become flammable.

“We learned a lesson. We also saw that in retrospect there were things we had seen happening that were indicators that something was amiss, but didn’t recognise them as issues at the time.”

After leaving CERN in 1983, Montgomery moved to the US, to work at Fermilab in Illinois. It was during his time there that Montgomery was to achieve what he considers to be the high point of his career: being part of a team that would eventually discover the top quark.

A hunt similar to that of the Higgs Boson, two teams working on different detectors on the Tevatron Collider at Fermilab were racing neck and neck to bring together enough data to prove the existence of this essential component of the standard model.

The D0 collaboration, for which Montgomery was the co-spokesperson, was able to announce in 1995 the discovery of the top quark, a moment that Montgomery considers as the highlight of his career: “We knew the pressure was on: we were running neck and neck with the experiment across the ring [the Collider Detector at Fermilab] and we finished up essentially in a dead heat.

“We managed to finish the analysis, write the paper for Physical Review Letters, and then get every one of the 401 signatories to sign off on what we had written in about a week – so that was an enormous high.”

Montgomery also had the added enjoyment of revisiting CERN to present his results: “I got to give a talk at the high-energy physics advisory panel in Washington, DC, which happened to meet quite close to when we came out with the results. I was also able to give a talk at CERN, where I had worked nearly a decade earlier, so that was quite neat.

“There is nothing in my career that can even compare to that.”

He would go on to be the associate director of research at Fermilab, responsible for the particle physics and astrophysics programmes, before moving to the Jefferson Lab in 2008 as director.

Now Montgomery oversees the delivery of the programmes of research undertaken at Jefferson Lab, is responsible for ensuring the lab receives enough funding, complies with relevant legal requirements, and also manages external stakeholder relationships.

Although a large part of his time spent as director has been to oversee the upgrade of the facilities at the lab, Montgomery particularly enjoys getting involved with the outreach programmes the lab runs from time to time. The lab will often run lab visits for local schools, and also an open house every two years, that sees thousands of people come and visit the facilities and talk to the researchers about their work.

When local school groups come to visit the lab, Montgomery will often make time to talk to them about what they’re doing and their own experiences in school.

“I always make a point of interacting with them and let them ask all sorts of questions,” explains Montgomery. “Things like these are a counterpoint to the hard science that we do, but are just as important in contributing to the character of the lab.”

So what next? Although he’s still working as the director of the Jefferson Lab, Montgomery actually resigned from the position just under a year ago, but the search to find a suitable successor is still ongoing. He explains that his future plans are dependent on the arrangements made with his eventual replacement.

“Whether or not the lab decides if it wants to pay me to stick around, that will depend on the incoming director and whether they would be happy to have help on things,” he explains. “Sometimes the presence of the outgoing director can be negative. I don’t want to get in the way of the incoming director, but since we still don’t know who that is, those discussions are still yet to take place.”

With a lot of family already in the US – Montgomery’s two sons live in Seattle and Oregon with their families– returning to the UK doesn’t seem too high on his list of places to move to next, but he is keen to squeeze in some holiday-time between roles if possible. “I might just take a little vacation between this role and whatever I move onto,” he jokes, explaining that he and his wife enjoy trips to the Caribbean, although his wife is more in favour of visiting Hawaii.

However, it seems that Hugh might be looking for something a bit more low-key: “After eight years of stress of being a director, I am not looking for a particularly high profile job to do next!”

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Philippa Skett

Philippa Skett

Media Officer at Institute of Physics
Philippa was the IOP's media officer
Philippa Skett

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