Faces of Science
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FACES OF SCIENCE The people behind our science
MATHEMATICSPolish scientist Stanislaw Ulam found “learning arithmetic mildly painful” as a child. Ironically Ulam developed the Monte Carlo method while recovering from brain inflammation.
Ulam Discovers Monte Carlo Method
Stan Ulam received his D.Sc in 1933. During this time, Stan spent long hours at the Scottish Café, where he worked on mathematical problems with fellow students and professors.
Ulam escaped the German blitzkrieg with his brother Jozef, but the rest of his family fell victim to the Holocaust.
In 1943, he joined the Manhattan Project, where he helped develop the world’s first atomic bomb.
One day, he was playing solitaire while recovering from surgery when he formulated the Monte Carlo method used to approximate the probability of certain outcomes by running multiple trial runs (simulations) using random variables.
Applications for Monte Carlo range from weapons design to modern finance.
RENEWABLE FUELSJohn Gordon remembers one high-school science class in which they discussed the chemistry of sugars. Today, he's interested in the use of carbohydrates not as a form of nutrition but as renewable and sustainable sources of hydrocarbon fuels.
Passion for solutions to energy problems
John Gordon uses his passion for energy science to help solve significant problems.
John Gordon’s passion grew while attending school in Scotland, where a series of chemistry and physics teachers instilled in him a sense of curiosity as to how things worked in nature and the universe.
He is currently developing methods that use carbohydrates as renewable and sustainable sources of hydrocarbon fuels.
Like his Scottish teachers, John works to motivate younger scientists toward tackling important societal problems.
MODELING/SIMULATIONSara Del Valle grew up watching her parents—who were missionaries—tend to people suffering from infectious disease. These experiences, coupled with her passion for mathematics, led Sara to develop computer models to study communicable illnesses.
Modeling infectious disease with mathematics
While growing up, Sara Del Valle watched her parents tend to people suffering from infectious disease.
Later in life she discovered her love for mathematics, but always in the back of her mind was her desire to help stop the spread of infectious disease.
As a Los Alamos scientist, Sara works with her team to develop mathematical and computer models to study diseases such as smallpox, malaria, AIDS and influenza.
Her end goal is to use social media to track outbreaks so that fewer people die from infectious diseases.
FUTURE OF COMPUTERSSays Tim Germann, “It’s reassuring when nature behaves as you expect it to, but even more exciting when it surprises you, which is often the case in science.” Such surprises are common for Tim, who plays a role in the future designs of computers and software.
Designing the future of really fast computers
While in junior high school, Tim Germann received his first computer, a Commodore VIC-20 with 5 kilobytes of memory—roughly the content of one written page. Decades later, Tim is preparing for the exascale computer era, which will bring computing power and memory that are each 12 orders of magnitude greater than the VIC-20.
As Director of the Exascale Co-design Center for Materials in Extreme Environments, Tim is in the unique position of witnessing the birth of even faster and more powerful computers and applications that will dominate the world in the decades to come.
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BIOSCIENCE/HEALTHFor Karissa Sanbonmatsu, there is nothing more exciting than the moment of discovery, when only the discoverer has the answer to a special secret. One such secret Karissa is unraveling today is how DNA is reprogrammed during life.
Discovery of gigantic molecules makes huge impact on gene research
Karissa Sanbonmatsu says that research is like solving a complex puzzle. Karissa cannot stop “digging” at a problem until she knows the answer. For her, there is nothing more incredible than the feeling of moving into uncharted territory.
Karissa’s research right now involves researching how DNA is reprogrammed during life. The missing link on how genes are switched on and off could be gigantic RNA molecules. In 2012, Karissa and her team published the first structure of such a molecule.
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SPACEAs a kid, Roger Wiens built model rockets and even a telescope. Today, Wiens fuels his passion for space by contributing to technology that is helping to explore Mars.
Wiens’ passion for space has no limits
At nine years old, Roger Wiens built a telescope to sketch the features of Mars.
Forty years later he returned to the Red Planet, this time as part of a team that invented ChemCam, a device aboard the rover Curiosity.
Using a laser that packs the energy of a million light bulbs into a spot the size of a pinhead, ChemCam blasts pieces of Martian rock in search of elements like carbon and oxygen—some of the basic building blocks of life.
CHEMICAL SCIENCEJuan Duque's passion for research stems from his fascination with building new things and learning how they work. His research in surface chemistry continues to feed this passion because, as Juan sees it, there are always new questions to answer.
Duque bent on discovery with sensors and new materials
For as long as he can remember, Juan Duque has been fascinated with building new things and learning how they work.
Juan is developing tools that enable researchers to design new materials for photovoltaics and sensors.
As always, it is scientific research that drives Juan, as his work often takes him in unexpected directions that always keep the discovery process dynamic and exciting.
PHYSICSWhile taking physics in high school, Michelle Espy realized that scientific methods could be used to predict and understand things. Michelle has applied this knowledge to develop sensitive magnetic sensors that measure brain function and detect liquid bombs.
Espy spies on radioactive substances to protect nation
While taking physics in high school, Michelle Espy realized that the world wasn’t just random—she could use scientific methods to predict and understand things.
At Los Alamos, Michelle and her team have developed SQUIDs (Superconducting Quantum Interference Devices) to measure brain function, image brain features, and detect liquid bombs.
Such work has verified Michelle’s realization years ago that the world is not random, as diverse applications for SQUIDs actually share many underlying principles.
PHYSICSPolitely told that she should follow more feminine pursuits, Leona Woods graduated from high school at 14, received a Bachelor of Science degree at 19, and at 23 joined the all-male team led by Enrico Fermi working on developing the world’s first artificial nuclear reactor.
One woman among many men dedicates life to nuclear physics
Born in 1919, Leona Woods was an American physicist who helped build the world’s first artificial nuclear reactor and participated on the Manhattan Project to construct the atomic bomb.
Woods was only 23 years old when she joined the all-male team that built and experimented with a nuclear reactor known as the Chicago Pile-1.
Working with her mentor Enrico Fermi, she proved instrumental in constructing and applying neutron detectors to monitor the flux of neutrons in the reactor.
Years later, she solved the problem of xenon poisoning at the Hanford plutonium production site and supervised the construction and operation of that facility’s plutonium production reactors.
METALLURGYAmy Clarke finds it ironic that scientists can be perceived as overly practical, when it is creativity that drives the design of advanced materials. Today, Amy harnesses such ingenuity to develop materials important to applications in energy, defense and industry.
Minerals to new materials and metallurgy keeps Amy motivated
Amy Clarke grew up in the “Copper Country” in Michigan, where she was first exposed to metallurgy and materials science when she attended Michigan Technological University and later graduate school at the Colorado School of Mines.
The cumulative experience and the people at these universities ignited Amy’s passion for materials science.
Today, she performs X-ray and proton imaging of materials during processing to watch and influence microstructure and property development in real time.
EARTH SCIENCESJoel Rowland is fascinated with the natural world—that water, wind and sediment can be organized into spectacular patterns. Today, this passion drives him to study how climate change affects the shape and organization of landscapes dominated by permafrost.
Asking “why?” solves riddles of permafrost
Joel Rowland’s favorite high-school class was earth science.
While in college, Joel began to major in political science, but upon taking an introductory oceanography class, he was reminded that studying the natural world was much more rewarding.
As a Los Alamos scientist, Joel is studying how climate change affects the shape and organization of landscapes dominated by permafrost.
While performing such work, Joel has realized there is always another “why” that brings about a deeper understanding of the Earth’s surface.
NANOSCIENCERashi Iyer has had a fervent passion for protecting the environment and limiting our impact on all living organisms since a child. Iyer always has been a strong advocate for the role of science and technology in the advancement of women globally.
Nanoparticle toxicity testing serves Iyer’s passion for environment
Rashi Iyer develops multiple new scientific focus areas keeping the environment, our non-human cohabitants and the national mission in perspective.
Her efforts have been primarily dedicated to reducing the use of animals for research by developing the next generation of bioassessment platforms to understand and mitigate the toxic effects of radiation, chem-bio threats and engineered nanomaterials.
Most recently, Iyer is working with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency to develop an artificial human testing platform.
PHYSICSRegarding the nature of scientific discovery, Enrico Fermi noted, “There are two possible outcomes: If the result confirms the hypothesis, then you’ve made a measurement. If the result is contrary to the hypothesis, then you’ve made a discovery.”
Physics Nobel Prize-winning wizard of 20th century
Born in Italy in 1901, Enrico Fermi is widely regarded as the only physicist of the 20th century who excelled both theoretically and experimentally.
Fermi is perhaps best remembered for helping to develop the world’s first artificial nuclear reactor, as well as his contributions to quantum theory, nuclear and particle physics and statistical mechanics.
He received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1938 and participated in the Manhattan Project.
Although intellectually brilliant, Fermi was known among his colleagues for his simplicity when tackling complex problems.
Whenever possible he avoided complicated mathematics, instead obtaining quick results using order-of-magnitude estimates.
CLIMATE CHANGENate McDowell has always been in awe of plants and their tenacity for survival. Today, Nate applies his extensive background in biochemistry and physiology to study where, when, and how vegetation dies during droughts caused by climate change.
Sustainable solutions amidst drought, climate change
Impressed by a study of the subtle connection between ocean fog and the life cycle of the redwood forests, Nate McDowell is in awe of plants and their ability to survive.
Plants are currently dying around the world as a result of climate change, and Nate believes we owe it to future generations to understand why. He and his team are currently studying where, when, and how vegetation dies during drought.
Plant mortality is a fundamental part of ecosystem processes that defines where we see certain species, how much value we place on them, and perhaps most importantly their sustainability into the future.
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MATERIALSSusan Hanson remembers that one of her teachers would say that chemistry is “the central science” because it is helpful for solving diverse problems. One of Susan’s current projects involves replacing precious-metal catalysts with earth-abundant materials.
Designing less expensive and sustainable catalysts may revolutionize industry
Susan Hanson says that it is important to realize that you can always learn something new from others—and that much of the science done today would not be possible without the groundwork laid by people who have come before us.
One of her current projects involves trying to replace precious-metal catalysts with earth-abundant metals. Precious and rare metals like platinum and iridium are used as catalysts in industry.
Susan and her team design catalysts based on metals like cobalt and iron, which would be less expensive and ultimately more sustainable.
BIOFUELSJosé Olivares has always enjoyed figuring out how things work. At an early age, he tore an old television apart, made paper airplanes, and read Scientific American. Today, he leads the Bioscience Division and works on programs developing algae as a source of biofuel for energy and transportation.
How things work drives José to discovery
José Olivares has always been intrigued by disciplines like math, chemistry and physics, but his greatest passion has been figuring out how things work, particularly machines.
He continued to learn about electricity, vacuum systems, computers, and signals much like he did at a young age, empirically through tinkering and experimentation.
His research passion has been in developing advanced mass spectrometers, which help scientists understand the structure of molecules and how they are held together.
BIOFOODS/BIOFUELSRichard Sayre cites his father as his greatest influence. “He and I built cars and experimented with solar cells—not always successfully but always with great fun and passion.” Richard works on engineering biofuel production systems and addressing global food-security challenges.
Working at the cutting edge of discovery fuels Sayre’s science
Richard Sayre’s passion for plants, photosynthesis, and biophysics was nurtured by his father, who was a physician and a keen organic gardener. It is this passion that drove Richard to become a bioscientist.
Today, Richard and his team work on engineering advanced biofuel production systems and aggressing global food-security challenges. Says Richard, “It’s the idea of being at the cutting edge of discovery that makes me wake up each morning and rush off to work.
DESIGN PHYSICSAmy Bauer switched careers from mathematics and finance to follow her passion and since has applied her skills to discovering novel therapeutics for cancer, determining the effects of tuberculosis infection on AIDS, and issues related to national security.
From finance to forensics: a foundation of inspired problem-solving
For Amy Bauer working in science allows her to express her passion for challenges and problem-solving puzzles. The spark that ignited her interest in science was not a single event or person—it was a succession of events leading from a career in finance to forensics.
Through her pursuit of intellectually stimulating problems and inspired by historical accounts related to mathematics and science, today Amy finds herself passionate about the technical challenges she encounters working in the Laboratory’s National Technical Nuclear Forensics program. The nuclear-deterrent component of this program involves reverse-engineering nuclear devices by using post-detonation data.
SPACE PHYSICSTom Vestrand has always been interested in how the universe began, how it will end, and the nature of its early, violent history. At Los Alamos, he has worked on developing fully autonomous “thinking telescopes” that catch gamma-ray bursts—the biggest explosions since the Big Bang.
Robotic telescopes, distributed sensor networks, and machine learning: imagining our future
As a child, Tom Vestrand watched Frank Capra's The Strange Case of Cosmic Rays. The educational film presented students a challenge to become the next generation of scientists to solve the unanswered mysteries about the nature of the universe.
Tom took up the challenge, and at Los Alamos has worked on developing and integrating new technologies, such as robotic telescopes, distributed sensor networks, and machine learning.
His work on “thinking telescopes” has helped collect information about gamma-ray bursts, which carry unique information about the nature of the early universe.
EXPLOSIVES PHYSICSDana Dattelbaum is interested in initiation of explosives in extreme environments. She develops diagnostics of chemically reactive systems in extreme conditions of pressure, temperature, and compression. She recently became an APS Fellow for her work in extremes.
Connects basic science to stockpile stewardship
Dana Dattelbaum's experiments in shock sensitivity and dynamics of explosives support simulations of nuclear weapons performance and enhance the safety of the nation’s nuclear stockpile.
She uses the Lab’s unique experimental platforms and diagnostics to examine fundamental science issues that affect materials in the stockpile. Gas guns investigate materials properties of explosives at conditions similar to those found in nuclear weapons. The shock waves in the gas guns start chemical reactions in explosives, which eventually lead to detonation.
Dattelbaum develops diagnostics to measure the chemical species as they evolve at very fast reaction rates behind the shock front. This information is used to develop models of the performance of nuclear weapons and to enhance the safety of the stockpile.
PHYSICS/COMPUTER SCIENCENicholas Metropolis summarized his experience at Los Alamos: “Undoubtedly, this was the most marvelous experience a scientist, young or old, could have ever imagined. All the great minds in science were assembled here or visited frequently. The experience was electrifying.”
Manhattan Project, Monte Carlo Method, MANIAC: Metropolis revolutionizes mathematical applications
Known as “Monte Carlo Nick,” Nicholas C. Metropolis is best remembered as one of the founding fathers, along with Stan Ulam and John von Neumann, of the Monte Carlo method, which was used on the Manhattan Project to design the atomic bomb.
Today, Monte Carlo is used for diverse applications, such as simulating traffic flow on highways and forecasting financial fluctuations in the stock market.
Metropolis also helped develop one of the world’s first high-speed digital computers, which he named MANIAC (mathematical and numerical integrator and computer).