Los Alamos National Laboratory

Los Alamos Institutes

Strategic Outreach for and Competitiveness

picture of Research Park

The National Security Education Center sits at the edge of the Laboratory campus in the Los Alamos Research Park, a building marked UCSD and UCSB for two University of California campuses. The center bustles with students, visiting professors from the University of California, and Laboratory technical staff. They’re all there to participate in distance-learning classes and exciting projects on everything from the structural health of wind-turbine blades to new computer architectures for handling gigantic datasets. 1663 recently sat down with Nan Sauer, the center’s director.

1663: What is the National Security Education Center all about?

Nan Sauer: The center is home to five educational institutes, three innovation centers, and the Institute for Geophysics and Planetary Physics. It’s the Laboratory’s response to change, and it’s a way to develop the technical workforce and the science for our expanded national security mission.

1663: By national security mission, do you mean the Nuclear Weapons Program?

Nan Sauer: Well, that’s the Lab’s central mission. As long as nuclear weapons remain extant, Los Alamos has to maintain preeminence in nuclear weapons science. But that’s only part of the story. There’s much more to the national security science mission. Los Alamos is also becoming a nexus for many new technological challenges—energy security, health and infrastructure security, global security, and more. Both the institutes and the innovation centers are focusing on the science associated with all elements of the extended mission. But the institutes have the special purpose of developing the workforce, and they’re doing that by building partnerships.

1663: Partnerships with whom?

Nan Sauer: Each educational institute at the center is a strategic long-term partnership with a specific University of California (UC) campus or with universities in the New Mexico Consortium (New Mexico State University, the University of New Mexico, and the New Mexico School of Mining and Technology). The goal of each is to educate both undergraduate and graduate students in some specialized area important to the Laboratory.

1663: Are these institutes a new thing?

Nan Sauer: When LANS (Los Alamos National Security, LLC) took over management of the Laboratory from UC, it established the institutes to address two big concerns. One is replenishing the DOE/National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA ) workforce. The other is competitiveness—maintaining technical competitiveness in a rapidly changing world.

picture of Nan Sauer, director of the National Security Education Center

Nan Sauer, director of the National Security Education Center.

1663: So the institutes are to create a pipeline for new young scientists to enter mission-oriented programs.

Nan Sauer: Yes, and also to help retain and revitalize existing staff. Their origin really goes back to the late 1990s. At that time the Nuclear Weapons Program was facing the problems of assessing aging weapons, and it needed new staff. But there was no targeted program in place to attract the best and brightest in engineering. In 2000 Los Alamos’ Chuck Farrar and his division (the Laboratory’s Engineering Division at that time) responded by starting the Los Alamos Dynamic Summer School, and by 2003 it had evolved into a joint institute with UC San Diego: the Engineering Institute. This institute has a graduate degree program that focuses on damage prognosis—a new field concerned with assessing structural integrity and also developing models to predict the useful life of a given component.

1663: Is the Engineering Institute still a summer school?

Nan Sauer: It still holds summer schools for undergraduate and graduate students, but it also sponsors a unique distance-learning program in which Lab technical staffers pursue advanced degrees in engineering from UC San Diego while staying employed here in Los Alamos. Graduate students at UC San Diego participate as well.

1663: Are Engineering Institute graduates joining Los Alamos?

Nan Sauer: Some are joining, but many graduates are already part of the staff. They can apply their new skills within the Nuclear Weapons Program, or they can join one of several Laboratory divisions that provide engineering solutions in energy, defense, and global security.

picture of Kevin Farinholt and Stuart Taylor working on advanced wireless sensing systems

Kevin Farinholt and Stuart Taylor are wonderful examples. They’ve been working on advanced wireless sensing systems for wind-turbine blades, bridges, and other structures. The sensors are designed to detect signs of material fatigue and transmit measurements for offsite analysis. On wind turbines, these sensors will help us understand how detrimental wind loads are causing damage to sensitive internal components. Stuart started in our Engineering Institute summer school on structural health monitoring as an undergraduate and is now earning his Ph.D. from UC San Diego through the Engineering Institute. He hopes to remain as a postdoctoral fellow working on institute-related projects. Kevin came to the institute from industry to be a postdoc and is now a staff member in our Applied Engineering and Technology Division. Institute graduates learn a multidisciplinary approach to damage assessment and prognosis that involves modern robotics, information technology, advanced sensing technology, and theory and simulation. And the approach is applicable to everything you can imagine, including energy systems, bridges, manufacturing infrastructures—even biomedical devices like artificial joints and limbs.

1663: The program sounds very innovative.

Nan Sauer: It is, and it’s been a model for three other joint institutes with UC campuses: the Information, Science, and Technology Institute with UC Santa Cruz; the Materials Design Institute with UC Davis; and the Institute for Multiscale Materials Studies with UC Santa Barbara. Now there’s a fifth institute, the Institute for Advanced Studies, which partners with universities in the New Mexico Consortium. This institute has a broader scope than the others. It’s promoting cutting-edge research projects on topics aligned with the New Mexico universities’ interests: materials science and nanotechnology, energy and environment, and information science and technology. For example, there are institute collaborations on medical radioisotopes, biofuels, and a prototype green grid for New Mexico.

1663: Health and energy projects must draw new people to Los Alamos, but in terms of revitalizing existing staff, how popular are the graduate courses at the institutes?

Nan Sauer: About 100 Lab staff members have enrolled in the formal graduate courses each year. Some are working toward advanced degrees. Others are getting more knowledge and training in nontraditional disciplines. Take the course in bioinformatics from UC Santa Cruz that was offered this past spring. It was quite popular; some people wanted to update their skills and others wanted to learn the fundamentals.

In the 2008–2009 academic year, we ran 22 graduate courses. The campuses are gracious about offering a list of classes each quarter and seeing which of them fill up and which don’t. Some faculty come from the Lab, but many more are UC professors. If a UC professor is giving the class, students here participate via Polycom video-conferencing. The students see three screens—one showing the notes on the whiteboard, one showing the instructor, and one showing the class on the university campus. It’s like being in the classroom. We have Lab staff who are taking courses, but we also have students from the campuses who are doing their graduate work here and need to fulfill their coursework requirements.

picture of Charlene Dvoracek and Mike Anastasio.

Charlene Dvoracek, a student from the Materials Design Institute, explains a poster about her work to Lab Director Mike Anastasio.

1663: Why are most institutes associated with a single campus?

Nan Sauer: People seeking a degree have to have a home campus. When the Engineering Institute was formed back in 2003, advanced degrees through distance learning were not that common, and we needed to partner with a specific university. The Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego was willing to offer a unique degree in damage prognosis, and Chuck Farrar teamed with them.

Now our Information, Science, and Technology (IST ) Institute with UC Santa Cruz—led by Gary Grider and Carolyn Connor of the High Performance Computing (HPC) Division—has branched out to multiple schools, including MIT, Carnegie- Mellon, and Ohio State. Several of these relationships grew naturally from collaborations that the IST innovation center and its leader Frank Alexander had initiated. Frank, Gary, and Carolyn work closely to coordinate IST activities.

Of the schools involved, only UC Santa Cruz offers classes, but the others are participating in specific research areas. Santa Cruz is focused on data storage for the huge datasets from computer simulations and from observations in space, in the environment, in medicine, and so on. Carnegie Mellon is looking at the resiliency of high-performance computing systems. Ohio State is focused on sensors, sensor systems, and data fusion—bringing together different data streams. MIT is focused on machine learning.

All these avenues can contribute to solving complex problems such as situational awareness, that is, the ability to measure environmental elements, interpret them, and predict their status in the future. For example, you might like to monitor greenhouse gases over the globe, but how do you handle and interpret all that data? How do you turn data into knowledge? That’s an overarching focus for the IST innovation center as well as the IST Institute.

1663: Can you describe a project of this kind?

Nan Sauer: One we’re very proud of is a pilot project to introduce data-intensive supercomputing (DISC) to the Laboratory. Gary has told me that giants like Google, IBM, Yahoo, and Microsoft have already developed the DISC software and hardware to manage massive indexes of files and images, and those tools might be very useful to us for analyzing the massive datasets you get in cosmology, bioinformatics, genomics, environmental monitoring, and cybersecurity.

To try this out on a shoestring budget, HPC Division and the IST innovation center donated the hardware components for a DISC computer cluster, and then the IST Institute and HPC Division brought in summer students (Ph.D. graduate students) to help. As part of their summer work, they were given the task of building the DISC computer cluster, programming the cluster using software similar to that used by Google, and testing its ability to do simple tasks on different kinds of datasets. That’s the kind of experience students have when they come to one of the institute summer schools. They’re thrown into situations that require them to work in teams to solve multidisciplinary problems. Gary likes to point out that DISC is a trailblazing project—not only does it introduce the Lab to a new way of thinking, but it also pulls people together from across the Lab to get things done.

1663: The Laboratory’s Postdoctoral Program brings in a large fraction of our new hires. How would you compare the institutes with that program?

Nan Sauer: Postdocs are very common in chemistry, physics, and theoretical work, but for computer science, engineering, and high-performance computing systems, people earning a Ph.D. are typically picked up by industry even before they graduate—so these Ph.D. students don’t take a postdoctoral position. That’s why we’re targeting undergraduates and graduates in these areas and introducing them to the Lab’s mission-critical problems.

One of the goals is to influence the types of topics that are taught in graduate schools. We’re focusing on specific niche areas where we need to be competitive, and we’re working on getting really good people to come here. Dan Rees of Accelerator Operations Technology (AOT ) Division is now developing a graduate program with UC San Diego on radio-frequency engineering to support the accelerator work that goes on at LANSCE, our neutron science center, and the work that will be done in the future at MaRIE, the Lab’s planned Matter and Radiation In Extremes signature facility for studies of materials under extreme conditions. Dan wants students to do their graduate work here and learn how accelerators work because the academic programs don’t adequately prepare engineers in many of the technical areas required to support accelerator design and engineering.

picture of students at the IST summer school

Undergraduate students in the IST summer school with a new computer cluster they built during their stay.

Another example is the the degree program in energy to be started at UC Davis. Dan Thoma, who leads the Materials Design Institute, is working with the office of the vice chancellor of research at UC Davis to create two new crossdisciplinary degree programs in energy: one in management and policy and the other in science and engineering. Materials science, mechanical engineering, physics, chemistry—basically any science discipline—would have an overlap with these programs.

And recently Larry Ussery in the Nuclear Nonproliferation (N) Division has suggested we start a university program in nuclear engineering and criticality safety. Larry wants to sponsor interns who would do their research at the Laboratory. N Division is known internationally for nuclear criticality expertise, an area that’s crucial to handling nuclear materials safely, but not many people are going into it, resulting in a chronic shortage of this expertise at the Laboratory and across the NNSA .

picture of experiment taking place

UC San Diego Engineering Institute students (above) test the capabilities of their fledgling wireless plume-tracking system on an engineered smoke plume (right).

picture of experiment taking place


picture of experiment taking place

This system will eventually use up to six remote-controlled, sensor-equipped planes (bottom right) to map out the distribution of contaminant concentrations and wind velocities in a plume—enough data to predict the likely course of dispersal.

Tutorials are another important educational tool that we use. For those, people don’t need to be formally enrolled in graduate school. They can take a tutorial in an area that’s important to their research. A good example is the distinguished lecture series held in the Institute for Multiscale Materials Studies, which focuses on soft materials (foams, gels, liquids, colloids, polymers, granular materials, and some biological materials) and materials modeling.

1663: It sounds like the institutes approach is an exciting one—for students and Los Alamos staff.

Nan Sauer: For students, it’s an eye-opening experience, much like when I first joined Los Alamos as a postdoc. I was in the Isotope and Nuclear Chemistry Division, and I saw inorganic chemists and spectroscopists and biologists all working side by side on topics ranging from hydrogen activation to medical radioisotopes. And today I find it very gratifying to see bright young students having a similar experience when they walk through the institutes’ doors. They’re invariably struck by the range of work and the way Los Alamos staff from different disciplines are working together. It’s an experience that makes many of them want to stay.

—Necia Grant Cooper and Eileen Patterson

In this issue...

+ More on this article