David Daniels

Graduation Year: 1993
Major(s): Physics, Mathematics
Current position: Director of Risk Analysis, Digital Sandbox, Inc.

Please describe your life journey since you graduated from Wheaton College.

I pursued a master’s degree in physics (experimental high energy particle) at the University of Oxford on a Fulbright Scholarship immediately following graduation from Wheaton. I performed a detector study/supersymmetry search with first results from the ZEUS detector at HERA in Hamburg, Germany in 2004. Completing my master’s in a year, I returned to the States to begin my doctorate, also in experimental HEP, at Harvard. I worked on the NOMAD neutrino oscillation experiment at CERN, writing my thesis on a search for the transition νμ to ντ through a kinematic reconstruction of one of the tau lepton decay paths. I received the Ph.D. degree in 2000, and continued for another year as a post-doc at Brandeis University, where I helped develop a calibration apparatus and method for the muon detection system of the ATLAS detector.

After a year of post-doc, I decided to pursue opportunities outside of physics. A careful search turned up four distinct career options for me at that point: physics teaching/research, computer programming, investment banking, and management consulting. Briefly considering and rejecting the first three in turn, I turned to management/strategy consulting, joining the Boston Consulting Group for three years. My time there was exhilarating, and I learned a tremendous amount. This was both one of the most challenging period of my professional life as well as one of the most high-growth. I learned how to think like a business leader, which was a radical departure from my academic training. My physics education enabled me to bring an analytical discipline and facility with complicated models that some of my fellow consultants lacked.

Upon leaving BCG, I turned to the government sector, where I worked for another 3 years for Booz Allen Hamilton in a consultative role for the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency (DARPA). I was able to help propose, evaluate, and manage projects across a broad spectrum of leading-edge applied research, and I learned more about electronics than I ever cared to know. This introduced me both to technology management and to the world of public policy.

Since last June, I have been with my current employer, a niche software and consulting firm specializing in evaluating, analyzing and managing terrorism risk for government homeland security customers. I lead the company’s efforts toward developing and deploying novel analytical techniques for measuring risk. In this role, I have been exposed to senior levels of political leadership at the federal, state and local levels. In this position, it is my ability to bring both analytical rigor and the flexibility to respond to changing data and political demands that has been most useful.

I would say that my physics education has been extremely valuable in each of the positions I have had, not because of the facts and equations I learned and derivations I performed, but because of the way it taught me to evaluate new technical concepts quickly and rigorously. I learned how to distinguish good science from poor and to clearly point out the difference to the non-technician.

In addition, and not least significantly, having a physics background in a non-physics environment engenders instant credibility. In the role of business consultant, I once encountered the employee of a client research organization who did not know my background, who refused to share some technical data I had asked for. Rather than escalating the issue to his supervisors, I tried to reason with the individual because I understood his predicament. I listened to his concerns and tried to address them one by one. Finally, in desperation, he posited that since the data was of a technical nature it was probably too complicated for me to understand. I answered, “I have a Ph.D. in physics. Try me!” He gave me his data without further objection.

In what way has your Wheaton education in physics or engineering prepared you for your current (or past) job?

 My physics education (at Wheaton and elsewhere) has provided a solid foundation upon which to build the other skills that have been important in my career so far. I think there is no better training for critical technical thought than a physics education. I believe that had I pursued a career in medicine or in certain fields of law, I would have been very well positioned with my physics background.

Unfortunately, although I had a fine education and experience at Wheaton, and I got good grades in all of my physics courses, I did feel somewhat unprepared for the academic rigors of graduate school, both in my master’s program and in my doctoral program. I feel that I merely survived the coursework, and had to make up for it in the lab. Part of my experience may have stemmed from the fact that I stepped into very different didactic traditions in the UK and at Harvard than I was accustomed to. Another part was that, due to limited enrollment, several courses were not offered during my time at Wheaton. I never took Thermodynamics, Optics, or Solid State physics at Wheaton, so I had to play catch-up in grad school. (It sounds like some of the course changes I read about in Da Watt may go some way toward correcting this for future students.)

Please describe the relationship of your Christian faith with your scientific training or career path.

For most of my career, I have been in environments that were very hostile to the Christian faith. My challenge has been to be a shining beacon in those environments, not by proclaiming my faith loudly, but by pursuing professional excellence without hiding my faith. I have felt many times that my statement for Christ’s kingdom was that one could be an excellent physicist and still side with orthodox Christian belief. (Apparently, in our post-modern, post-Darwinian world, this is seen as a contradiction.) I have had people tell me they were impressed by that combination in me, and I have been challenged by others for the same reason. Most often, though, I think when my colleagues find out I am a believer, it gives them pause to think. My hard-charging, in-your-face, tell-it-like-it-is style is probably a bit incongruous with most Christian stereotypes. I’ve actually had people say, “But, you’re so smart! How can you believe that stuff?” (Well, it’s like this...)

Do you have any words for young students considering a physics or engineering major?

Two things.

First, there’s no way around it, physics is really, really hard. But, it has to be to attract the brightest students to the toughest challenges. Remember that most people in this world do not have the mental horsepower to excel at physics. If you put your best effort into it you may succeed (you might, you might not), and if you do you will have a claim on intellectual achievement few others have. From this position, you will have the opportunity to shine Christ’s light like few others can. However, along the way you will be discouraged, tempted, and attacked. Sometimes the attacks will be overt, people will ridicule your faith. But, probably more common are the insinuations that you are not “good enough.” These are just two different tactics from the same adversary. He wants you to quit, and he doesn’t care how he achieves his objective. He doesn’t want you to excel at physics and remain steadfast in your faith, too. Giving up either is just fine with him.

Second – and I realize I’m making a complete pi turn here – don’t be afraid to leave physics. (See if Dr. DeSoto prints THIS one!) We don’t all have to be physicists. Can you imagine a world where we all became physicists? (OK, that’s enough of THAT.) I have observed that with the more science education one receives, the more insecure one feels about leaving the field. I’ve seen this with physicists, biologists, chemists. I think the longer you study a subject the more certain you feel in your own knowledge and competence. The prospect of leaving this relative security can be daunting. But, if at some point you feel that a career in physics isn’t for you, don’t feel bad about that. Your education will stand you in good stead whatever you do, and you will no doubt succeed. I know a lot of people who have left promising careers in physics who are going on to do great and exciting things with their lives. The smartest student in my class at Harvard left grad school after 1 year to pursue a better opportunity, and by all accounts he’s having a great time. In fact, after graduation, I knew more of my doctoral classmates who left physics than who stayed in it, and it wasn’t because these poor people couldn’t find positions! I also know (all too many) physicists who stay in the field long after their excitement for it wanes. You don’t want to get into that death spiral. It usually hits toward the end of grad school. I mention it now in the hope that when the time comes you will remember.

When I left Wheaton with my degree in hand, I thought I knew exactly how my career would unfold. I was set upon a career in experimental high energy physics research, and the only question in my mind was whether I would do it at Fermilab, SLAC or CERN. Fortunately for me, a few years later I realized that, although I could have doggedly pursued that vision, there were other places my physics training could take me. Where I am now a physics background is rare, and therefore I think it carries more weight than in traditional scientific circles.

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