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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Paulos set to retire from role as Physical Sciences Laboratory director

BobPaulosFrom Bob Paulos’ vantage, it’s been a banner year for field corn.

He recalls that when he left his office at the Physical Sciences Laboratory (PSL) in Stoughton for vacation earlier this summer, the corn outside his window was only a few feet tall. When he returned two weeks later, it towered over 10 feet.

Paulos will retire from the PSL on Oct. 1 after six years as its director. Terry Benson, instrumentation manager at PSL, has been named the interim director.

Paulos says that while he will miss the view of the expansive cornfields that surround PSL about 10 miles south of Madison —  mostly, he will miss the people he has worked with there and across campus.

“I feel fortunate to have worked on some truly interesting projects with some great teams over the past 40 years,” Paulos says.  “UW–Madison has been a great place to spend a career. And it’s because of the people. ”

Tucked back into farmland, the PSL is a hidden gem. In the shadow of the towering corn, about 40 staff including engineers, highly skilled technicians such as welders and machinists, and several students onsite, tinker, tap and even duct tape when needed, to create unique, often highly sophisticated research tools.

PSL Staff

PSL Staff.

PSL is a research and development lab that reports to the Office of Research and Graduate Education (OVCRGE). It has served campus and external partners since 1967 and provides a wide range of services including consulting, system engineering, project management, computer aided design and analysis, custom fabrication and calibration services of scientific instrumentation.

The Stoughton site features a large machinery and electronics shop to support projects of every scale and complexity. Staff at PSL are part problem solvers and part artists. Paulos says they amaze him and make him proud to come to work every day. He says he feels good leaving PSL in Benson’s hands having worked with him since Benson was a student at UW–Madison.

Stoughton and its cornfields are a long way – a very, very long way — from the bitterly cold but beautiful IceCube Neutrino Observatory at the South Pole. Paulos was associate director and project manager for the IceCube program, before being named director of the PSL

Paulos played an instrumental role in working with Francis Halzen, UW–Madison physics professor and longtime principal investigator for IceCube, to write the grant to create IceCube. IceCube is headquartered at UW–Madison and supported by the National Science Foundation and an international collaboration. PSL built about 3,500 of the 5,500-plus detectors buried in the ice at the South Pole for IceCube, which obtained the first view of a subatomic particle called the neutrino that originated beyond our galaxy.

Before IceCube, Paulos worked alongside astronauts and engineers on NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope – UW-Madison designed and built one of the original axial scientific instruments for the Hubble. He takes pride in knowing that he played a part in the spectacular photos of the Cosmos that the Hubble has captured over the years.

He credits the campus Space Science and Engineering Center (SSEC) for giving him one of his first campus jobs – his other job was at the Fatigue Lab at the School of Engineering where he tested material properties — as a student here in the late 1980s, and the opportunity to connect with the Hubble project as a young man.

Paulos, one of many Badgers in his family, graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering from the UW in 1982 and thought he’d land a job at a big aerospace engineering company. Instead, he stayed and has spent the last 40 years working for various campus units and traveling the world while doing it. How many other people can say they have been to the South Pole four times?

PSL also has participated in the construction of particle physics detectors at CERN, Fermilab and elsewhere. The center built significant chunks of the Large Hadron Collider, which lead to discovery of an elementary particle called the Higgs boson.

PSL is integral in an international collaboration called the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment, (DUNE). More recently, PSL made significant contributions to the LUX- ZEPLIN (LZ) experiment, an underground dark matter detector at the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF) in Lead,  South Dakota.

But PSL doesn’t just support massive, complex projects such as LZ, IceCube, or DUNE. It also supports research at UW–Madison related to limnology, medical, veterinary, geological and other biological sciences. Some 6,000 projects, big and small, have been executed over the lab’s  history.

Paulos says it’s the relationships and support he’s received that have made UW–Madison his home.

He’s worked with Steve Ackerman, vice chancellor for research and graduate education (VCRGE), for more than 25 years, first at the SSEC and now as a center director reporting to Ackerman. Before becoming the VCRGE, Ackerman was interim director of the SSEC, and for 18 years was director of the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies located within SSEC.

Paulos credits Ackerman, and calls out OVCRGE staff for supporting PSL with creative problem solving and finding ways to lessen administrative burden as the center has navigated complex local, national and international collaborations.

“Bob has left a significant mark on UW–Madison, having earned international respect for his leadership and ingenuity,” Ackerman says. “Bob leaves PSL in great shape to continue that legacy and further UW–Madison’s contribution to exploring and supporting exciting research on the surface, under-ground and in space.”

In retirement, Paulos plans to turn his attention to his cabin in Vilas County and a “shack” on 100 acres in Adams County. He has lots of unfinished and yet-to-be started projects on the properties. He bought a fishing boat over the summer – walleye be warned – and will be exploring another frontier further moving forward.

Instead of contemplating space mysteries such as the origin of neutrinos from the cornfields of Stoughton or the ice at the South Pole, he will now be spending retirement in the wilds of northern Wisconsin’s outdoors.


By Natasha Kassulke,