Purdue College of Science
Their eyes met across a particle accelerator in Switzerland. He was a graduate student from England. She was completing undergraduate studies in Italy. It was the beginning of a romance that 25 years later remains as highenergy as the first exchange.
Scientists and Purdue faculty members Ian Shipsey and Daniela Bortoletto are partners in research and in life. Both focus on particle physics, an interest that led to their first meeting years ago at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research).
Shipsey, the Julian Schwinger Distinguished Professor of Physics, recalls thinking that the young woman across the room was interesting and attractive. He set out to impress Bortoletto by inviting her to a dinner party and showing off his cooking skills: hummus, ratatouille and rhubarb with oranges. The meal worked its magic, and the couple soon started dating.
"He was very cute and came from a very different background than I did," Bortoletto recalls of the young man with the small ponytail. "He grew up in a big city and I grew up in a small town. He brought a different perspective about issues. I was struck that he took time off when he was a student to run an organization aiming to help people with mental problems. He was different from other physicists who I met at CERN."
When Bortoletto, who is now Purdue's Edward M. Purcell Distinguished Professor of Physics, left Europe to pursue a doctorate at Syracuse University, though, things got tough. "She was off and I was heartbroken," Shipsey recalls.
Shipsey saved up for a trip to New York that Thanksgiving, and she flew to Europe for Christmas. The back and forth across the Atlantic continued over the next two years, with communication between visits done with an early form of email on mainframe computers. The telephone was too expensive for a student budget and the World Wide Web, subsequently developed at CERN, had not been invented. After completing his doctorate at the University of Edinburgh, Shipsey moved to New York.
The couple married in Italy in 1988, with Bortoletto continuing work on her doctorate and Shipsey engaged in research at Syracuse. Eight months into marriage and with a fresh job offer from Purdue, Shipsey became gravely ill. The pain he felt in his back was more than a muscle tear related to squash playing. It was acute myelogenous leukemia, a rare cancer of the blood and bone marrow that most people do not survive.
Shipsey underwent intensive chemotherapy in New York City for the next year, which weakened his immune system to the point that he contracted pneumonia and went into a coma. He survived with help from strong antibiotics, which kept him alive but rendered him deaf. In 2002, a cochlea implant partially restored his hearing.
Within a year of Shipsey's treatment, the cancer returned, and he spent another year in and out of the hospital undergoing further treatment.
Throughout this ordeal, in addition to caring for her husband, Bortoletto wrote and defended her dissertation, completing the work at Rockefeller University, located near the hospital where Shipsey was receiving his treatments.
"I was just married, in a foreign country and moved to New York City, because Ian was hospitalized. It was a very hard time," Bortoletto says. "When you go through a difficult time it's good to have something absorbing like physics so you focus on what you have to do. In a sense it gave me stability in a period in which everything seemed to be falling apart."
Energy matters in this relationship
In 1990, with the illness barely behind them, Shipsey and Bortoletto arrived at Purdue, Shipsey as an assistant professor of physics, and Bortoletto as a postdoc. A year later, they welcomed a daughter, Francesca, who is now studying to be an opera singer at Oberlin College.
"When you believe, anything is possible," Shipsey says of his recovery. "When things are really bad, you CAN get better."
As leading researchers in the world of particle physics, Shipsey and Bortoletto have a busy life. They make a dozen trips or so a year to Switzerland to work at CERN, where Bortoletto has spent the past year on sabbatical to pursue the search for the Higgs boson and to coordinate the U.S. effort for the upgrade of the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) detector.
Together with a talented team of Purdue undergraduate, graduate students and technical personnel, they developed the silicon camera installed in 2008 in the CMS experiment at CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC); Bortoletto designed the sensors that detect the elementary particles and Shipsey built it. These cameras, like one Shipsey built in 1999 for a collider at Cornell University or the one developed by Bortoletto for the collider detector experiment (CDF) at Fermi National Laboratory, take photographs of charged particles with a precision finer than a human hair.
Bortoletto has been careful throughout the marriage to make sure, for the most part, that the work of husband and wife are independent, so that each can build a reputation based on individual efforts. When writing her thesis, she worked at the CLEO experiment at Cornell, where Ian also worked. When the couple moved to Purdue, he retained the CLEO project, but she branched off to work at CDF.
"I thought that by working on a different project my achievements would be more clearly recognized," she says. "I believe that you have to be very careful when you are married and on the same faculty. Ian and I are very fortunate; we have both been given great opportunities and have been able to do extremely well in research and teaching."
When they are not overseas, one member of the couple or the other may be at accelerators in Chicago or Cornell, or collaborating with physicists in California.
In addition to Shipsey's current work at Fermilab, he developed the largest silicon camera ever constructed in astronomy for a telescope that, when operational in 2020, will see more of the universe in one month than all previous telescopes built by mankind.
When the couple's daughter was younger, one of them always stayed home with her while the other traveled. These days, the two are rarely together more than a week each month, so they keep their relationship alive via Skype. When they are together, days go like this:
"The morning alarm goes off at 7 a.m. One of us staggers into the kitchen to put the espresso on," Shipsey says. "The other goes to check email and check on data that was processed while we were sleeping. Then we jump in the car and run to work, which is most of the time in Chicago or at CERN."
Shipsey and Bortoletto don't have trouble separating life from work. They don't want to.
"It's great," Shipsey says of his partnership. "People often wonder what we talk about at dinner on a Friday night. The answer is physics and the politics of physics, and Francesca and opera. Our child has taken us into the world of opera, a new world for us that is fantastic," Shipsey says.
And so, for this couple, is the world of physics.
"People have been trying to build the largest collider and now that it's working, it's like going up Everest and seeing the view for the first time. There won't be another opportunity like this in our professional lifetime," Shipsey says. "The opportunity is NOW and it's the biggest thing in our field in our lifetime."
"It's an amazing period for our type of science. It's tremendous. The data that we are collecting now at the LHC will change the landscape of physics for years to come."