LIGO engineer discusses her groundbreaking work in detecting gravitational waves
UMass Dartmouth engineering students and faculty were treated to a fascinating, firsthand account of the first detection of gravitational waves from someone who saw it happen.
Janeen Romie ’83, detector engineering group lead at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in Livingston, LA, presented her work to an attentive audience in the Stoico/FIRSTFED Grand Reading Room on September 24. Present were three of her former classmates and Ronald DiPippo, PhD, retired chancellor professor of mechanical engineering and former associate dean.
Romie’s presentation was sponsored by the College of Engineering and the Society of Women Engineers, an organization she co-founded with her classmate, Laurel Roeber Henderson.
LIGO awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics
Romie has worked at LIGO for 23 years as an engineer, project manager, and observing run manager. In September 2015, she was the run manager for the first direct detection of gravitational waves from two colliding black holes.
LIGO is a National Science Foundation facility dedicated to gravitational wave astronomy and astrophysics and is jointly operated by the California Institute of Technology and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. LIGO launched the field of gravitational wave astronomy with the first observation of the birth of a black hole, an achievement that led to the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics for its founders, Kip S. Thorne and Rainer Weiss, along with Barry C. Barish, the scientist and leader who brought the project to completion after four decades of work.
The world’s largest gravitational wave observatory, LIGO consists of two widely separated, 4 km-long (2 ½ miles) interferometers operating in unison to detect gravitational waves. One is located north of Richland, WA, and the other is in Livingston.
Romie is responsible for the maintenance of the Livingston interferometer and ensuring that the data is transmitted to the appropriate scientists. The laboratory just completed a year-long project to upgrade its laser for an observational run next year that is expected to capture several black hole phenomena a day.
Romie leads a team of four PhD physicists, mechanical engineers, and nine operators. She is fortunate, she said, to work with a team that is “passionate and dedicated” to their work.
“It was great to have Janeen visit us,” said Professor of Physics Gaurav Khanna, PhD, who coordinated the event. “Our students deeply appreciated their exchanges with Janeen, learning about how ‘big science’ projects need all types of expertise to succeed. LIGO involves engineers, computer scientists, physicists, mathematicians, managers, media specialists and many other experts to operate properly. People of all backgrounds with diverse academic degrees contribute to scientific discoveries in significant ways.”
UMass Dartmouth was “beautiful, futuristic”
Before the presentation, Romie talked about the value of her UMass Dartmouth education. A native of Arlington, MA and the daughter of a mechanical engineer, she became interested in engineering in high school. Few colleges offered an opportunity to combine studies in engineering and physics so Romie chose UMass Dartmouth, then known as Southeastern Massachusetts University.
“I thought it was beautiful, futuristic,” she said. “I loved the small spaces where students could study alone and in groups.”
At UMassD, Romie enjoyed hands-on work with components and realized that engineering would offer many career and travel opportunities. She loved the small classes that enabled her to get to know her classmates as well as the challenging engineering curriculum. She recalled Professor DiPippo, “who was hard, but really got you to think. He was always available to help.
“UMass Dartmouth prepared me very well for a career in engineering. It was a value-oriented education and I got everything out of it that I could and more.”
After graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering, Romie pursued a career in optics and laser technology. Her first job was at Raytheon Laser Products in Burlington, MA. She left for California to work on military laser systems at Northrop Grumman and then at Loral Electro Optical Systems in Pomona before joining LIGO at CalTech. She left for LIGO Livingston to be closer to the groundbreaking interferometer.
Romie encouraged students to plan their futures
Romie met with physics students and faculty before her presentation, where she encouraged students to plan their careers carefully, focusing on long-term goals. She told them to think about graduate school and to exercise their options before assuming significant financial responsibilities.
Communication, she told them, is always the hardest part of any job but is vitally important. “While technology is awesome, soft skills are just as important to your career as technical knowledge,” she said.
She encouraged students to “find their confidence. It is extremely important to hone and polish your self-worth,” she said. “Be absolutely sure that what you bring to the table is valued and important.”
While Romie’s work at LIGO is groundbreaking, she finds excitement in her personal life as well. She and her husband, Clayton, operate R&D Motorsports, a race prep and automobile restoration shop in Baton Rouge. They enjoy racing their own Aston Martin G4 racecar whenever possible. Romie’s love of cars motivated her through her education at UMass Dartmouth. After completing her degree in mechanical engineering, she promptly purchased a Corvette.