Editor's note: this is one of six profiles republished from Rowland Hall's 2018–2019 Annual Report feature story, "Winged Lions on the Rise." Millennial alumni are finding their voices and already shaping their fields and communities—from physics to film, music to medical innovations, and environmental policy to conservation-minded real estate. Learn how Rowland Hall impacted them, and how they’re impacting the world. From left, Jared Ruga ’06, Claire Wang ’15, Phinehas Bynum ’08, Jeanna Tachiki Ryan ’01, Tyler Ruggles ’05, and Sarah Day ’06.
Two decades ago, now-retired eighth-grade science teacher Nancy Petersen set Tyler Ruggles’ physics interest in motion with word problems about trains traveling from one station to another. Tyler, a Rowland Hall lifer, enjoyed visualizing those reality-based questions. He still leans on that visual aptitude, but he’s since graduated from trains to particles colliding at nearly the speed of light, and from solving for velocity to working with fellow physicists to better understand the equations that govern the universe.
As a University of Wisconsin-Madison physics PhD student and postdoctoral researcher, Tyler spent over five years working for the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) Collaboration at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN. Four of those years, he worked on site near Geneva, Switzerland, where the Large Hadron Collider sits in an underground tunnel with a 17-mile circumference.
In layman’s terms, the CMS experiment involves colliding particles and measuring the results. “The CMS detector is essentially a gigantic camera taking photos of what's showering outwards from the middle of these collisions,” Tyler explained. “From that, we can reconstruct what happened at the very center of a collision.” Tyler’s work and that of the collaboration has helped confirm characteristics of the Higgs boson, a particle originally theorized in the 1960s. This sort of testing is a critical part of the scientific method.
Tyler said it was exciting to put even a tiny dent in helping to decode the cosmos, and working at CERN—alongside some of the smartest physicists alive—deepened his own understanding of the field. “I could have envisioned myself staying at CERN for my whole life,” he said. Eventually, though, he gravitated back to what he called the more pressing issue of climate change—a problem he first tackled at Colorado College. His senior year, one of Tyler’s roommates volunteered their dilapidated house for an energy audit from a campus group. The friends learned they could insulate their attic and quickly recoup the cost through lower bills, so they rented a machine to spray the insulation themselves. “One of my friend's rooms never recovered—there was some insulation stuck to the floor for the rest of the year,” Tyler laughed.
Messy as it was, the project gave Tyler clear takeaways: he loved the confluence of thermodynamics, community-oriented work, and fighting climate change through energy efficiency. “I saw all three of those come together in that moment,” he said. He joined that campus group the next day, and eventually became a group leader. After that, he worked in the rural Colorado mountains, educating energy customers about efficiency and developing a workforce to make energy upgrades to buildings. He valued those roles, but missed digging into the science. “I headed back to do what I loved from eighth grade,” he said. So he earned a PhD, and now he’s combining his three work passions.
Tyler is now doing energy-system and electric-grid modeling, and determining how society can progress toward a grid without carbon emissions. He and his colleagues hope to publish in academic journals, steer future research, and influence those with political clout.
In June, Tyler started as a postdoctoral researcher at the Carnegie Institution for Science on the Stanford University campus. There, he’s doing energy-system and electric-grid modeling, and determining how society can progress toward a grid without carbon emissions. Along the way, he and his colleagues hope to publish in academic journals, steer future research, and influence those with political clout.
Tyler is also exploring uncharted territory in his own personal universe: fatherhood. In 2018, Tyler and his wife, Caroline, welcomed their first child. Neither Rowland Hall nor graduate school could have prepared him for this work, Tyler joked. But he does find himself channeling chapel sessions, where students are taught to value each other: “You can value a crying baby from time to time,” he laughed. “You realize that you're going to help grow a healthy, helpful, kind human, and that makes it worthwhile.”
Top photo: Tyler, far left, gives American tech entrepreneur William Hurley and associates a tour of the CMS Collaboration at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, on March 5, 2018. (Photo courtesy of CERN)