September 14, 2023
Just Say Yes
CMU alumna Aria Soha’s willingness to try new things has taken her physics career in unexpected directions
By Tricia Miller Klapheke
When alumna Aria Soha graduated from Carnegie Mellon University, she never anticipated that one of the highlights of her future career would be overseeing a bison herd.
“One of the best parts of my current job is waking up to emails like cow No. 17 had her calf, and there’s a little picture included,” she laughs. “I did not see that coming when I decided to major in physics.”
Mellon College of Science graduate Aria is the deputy director of the Infrastructure Services Division at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in suburban Chicago, one of the national labs contracted with the U.S. Department of Energy.
She oversees any new construction or major renovations on the 6,800-acre property, maintenance of the buildings and utilities, and upkeep of roads and grounds on the property. Part of that property is 6,300 acres of prairie with approximately 20 bison. Native to the area, the animals are part mascot and part worker, providing affordable landscaping and entertainment.
“If someone asks, ‘Would you be interested in this opportunity?’ Just say yes and figure it out from there. I never thought I would end up in infrastructure services, but when somebody asked, I said yes.”
Aria is uniquely qualified for her role, having worked both in labs and infrastructure across multiple divisions throughout her more than 20 years at Fermilab. Previously, she served as deputy project manager for the installation of the Proton Improvement Plan-II, an ongoing $1 billion project to enhance the particle accelerator’s abilities and one of the largest projects in Fermilab’s history.
“I can step back, and I can see the moving parts,” she says. “I can see the needs of the scientists, and I can see the needs of the infrastructure.”
In 2002, after graduating from Carnegie Mellon with her bachelor’s degree, Aria started as an accelerator operator. One of her proudest accomplishments is that her record for the most antimatter collected in an hour still stands. She moved next to the particle physics division where she learned about operating detectors.
Aria’s first step toward infrastructure was a role as the installation coordinator for the Muon g-2 experiment. As she gained more experience in managing facilities, supervising employees, and installing neutrino detectors, she worked her way up, eventually serving in positions where she would be given a big empty building to fill it with all the necessary equipment for a specific experiment.
All of those experiences stem from Aria’s willingness to try new things — advice given by her mom, Miriam Meyhoefer, during her first year at CMU.
“If someone asks, ‘Would you be interested in this opportunity?’ Just say yes and figure it out from there,” Aria says. “I never thought I would end up in infrastructure services, but when somebody asked, I said yes.”
As a child growing up in the Bronx in New York City, Aria wanted to be a singer. She joined a professional children’s choir at age 12, and by age 15, she had performed at Carnegie Hall and what is now known as David Geffen Hall.
Having accomplished that dream, she looked for something new that showcased her math talents.
At a college fair, she picked up a stack of applications and completed three of them including CMU as it topped the stack — unbothered by the fact she didn’t know where Pittsburgh was.
“CMU called me on the phone,” she says. “A student called and asked if I had any questions, so that was why I ended up picking CMU. When I was a student there, I volunteered to be the student calling because that meant so much to me.”
A teaching assistant in her first-year physics class convinced Aria to switch her major to physics. When she decided not to go home in the months before her sophomore year, she knocked on the doors of professors seeking a summer job.
Professor of Physics Jeffrey B. Peterson told her to come back on June 1 and get started. Working in his lab opened doors for Aria.
She learned useful skills for her future endeavors like soldering, mastering an oscilloscope, making circuit board layouts, welding and the workings of a machine shop. Her main project was working on a microwave correlator for the AMEBA telescope.
During her senior year, she spent two weeks in Antarctica, working on the VIPER telescope at the South Pole, an opportunity made possible by an undergraduate research grant Peterson secured.
Also in the Peterson lab, she met fellow Tartan Mike Vincent, who had graduated from Mellon College of Science in 1999 and went on to work at Fermilab. He encouraged her to apply there, too.
“Working in the Peterson lab was one of the best experiences,” Aria says. “It gave me work experience, so when I was interviewing at Fermilab I could say, ‘Yes, I can solder stuff. Yes, I know how to use an oscilloscope.’ It also allows you to meet people from other classes.”
“I was a physics major. I was the only female in my graduating class. I was the only Hispanic. So when I could hang out with the other Hispanic engineers, there were moments with little tidbits of home like a certain type of food or how fast your mom could throw a chancleta [Spanish for slipper]. Those little tidbits of home made you feel like you belonged.”
Her strategy of “saying yes and figuring it out” led to getting involved in clubs on campus, too.
At CMU, she joined the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) and was chapter president her senior year.
“SHPE gave me a real sense of community,” she says. “I was a physics major. I was the only female in my graduating class. I was the only Hispanic. So when I could hang out with the other Hispanic engineers, there were moments with little tidbits of home like a certain type of food or how fast your mom could throw a chancleta [Spanish for slipper]. Those little tidbits of home made you feel like you belonged.”
Aria later brought that experience to Fermilab when they were struggling to recruit employees from underrepresented groups to the lab. She recommended they attend the SHPE National Conference to expand their applicant pool.
In 2017, she joined 10 other Hispanic engineers to start a Fermilab chapter, serving as its first president. Her Fermilab chapter made it a priority to reach out to college and high school chapters, and in 2020, Aria received SHPE’s Servant Leadership Award.
“A SHPE chapter is one of the best ways Fermilab can engage with the greater Hispanic engineering community, and my hope is that an active professional chapter will also build community among Hispanic Fermilab employees,” she says.