LHC Lunch

Meet Mauro Cosentino

From finance to physics

Mauro Cosentino looked a little disappointed about his lunch. He thought he was getting some kind of pasta, but found the dish was in fact vegetable -- maybe asparagus -- based. “It’s not bad, just not what I was expecting,” he said.

We were the CERN dining room known as R1. The Brazilian native told me how he ended up 41, living in France with his wife and baby daughter, and working on particle physics -- his second career. In his early 20s, he had been set for a life as a banker.

Cosentino had liked the idea of pursuing astronomy in college, but his family and friends convinced him that he wouldn’t be able to make a living with that degree. So, as a teenager, he looked for the best-ranked program and applied for his bachelor’s in business administration. A bank hired him following graduation, and he started making good money. But after a few years, Cosentino wondered why he was there. “I saw no point in doing it the rest of my life,” he said.

Around then, Cosentino went to see the movie “Contact,” based on the sci-fi book by Carl Sagan. He remembered his earlier fascination with astronomy and watching Sagan’s popular TV series, “Cosmos,” as a kid.

“When I saw the movie I felt everything back,” he said. He realized he was in the wrong place and made a decision on the spot. “I should do what I should have done from the start, before it’s too late.” He was 27, and he was going back to school.

Applications were due the same week. Cosentino submitted his just in time. His classes were five nights a week from about 7 to 11 p.m., after a full day of work at the bank and before homework.

None of his old credits overlapped with science. “I had to start everything over,” he said.

His family and friends may have thought he was crazy, but Cosentino didn’t care. “You have more strength of will at 27,” he said. He was independent and making his own money. But the packed schedule did cause unfortunate side effects. “Going to night school really compromised my social life,” he said.

By the second year, Cosentino was having second thoughts “like every day,” he said. He wasn’t ready to quit, though, and he told himself, “At some point this will be over and I’ll get my life back.”

Then he found out that the astronomy courses he needed were only being offered during the daytime, which he notes as a little ironic. He quit his job and became a full-time student. But his first few astronomy classes left him nonplussed. He realized he liked the fundamentals of his physics courses more, drawn to the idea of delving into the unknown.

Cosentino stopped the astronomy classes, took a new job as a financial analyst in a São Paulo telephone company, and went back to physics night classes. He completed most of the rest of the degree this way, going back to full-time once more at the very end. Five years and six months after starting his second undergraduate degree, he finished.

After graduation, Mauro left for Brookhaven National Laboratory, on Long Island, to begin his graduate work in the STAR collaboration at the laboratory’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider.

He stayed six months then spent six years moving between particle physics experiments in the U.S. and Brazil, finally getting his doctorate in São Paulo. Now he is hired by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and works full-time on the ALICE experiment at CERN. He writes computer programs that tease out direct photons, part of the heavy ion experiment’s background results, from the other data. From his seventh-floor apartment, he can see part of the campus and the Alps.

“I found my place in particle physics,” he said. “There is a pleasure of seeing somewhere that no one else has seen before, and also a sensation that you have accomplished something your kids will be proud of. This is completely new for me.”

The plate of food was nearly empty on his tray. Despite a questionable beginning, it all seems to have worked out.