DOE’s science superstars gain national recognition

7 July 2014

I had the pleasure of working for 32 years as a scientist in the DOE laboratory system. The Department of Energy is the largest funder of the physical sciences in the United States. Because it descended from the Manhattan program in the 1940s, the agency has always been the home of large, interdisciplinary projects, spun-off from its nuclear weapons program legacy, such as accelerators for nuclear physics, particle physics, and biomedicine. It also sponsors large multi-institutional initiatives such as the Human Genome Project.

DOE held a ceremony in June honoring some of its most influential midcareer scientists within its extensive research portfolio. The Lawrence Awards were first given in 1960 and have been bestowed almost every two years since then. The honor is named after Ernest Orlando Lawrence, the inventor of the cyclotron, and the father of US accelerator physics. His legacy lives on through these awards and through the prestigious scientific output of one of the DOE’s original national laboratories that also bears his name—Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, located north of UC Berkley’s campus in California. (The AIP Center for History of Physics has an excellent web exhibit on Lawrence and the cyclotron, see: http://www.aip.org/history/lawrence/).

The 2013 Lawrence Awards were given to six scientists. Listening to the award winners’ acceptance speeches, it was clear to me that each awardee had made major contributions to DOE’s mission and to the scientific community. Margaret Wooldridge of the University of Michigan developed unique methods of exploring the ignition of combustible fluids that will help develop more efficient fuels and engines. John Sarrao of Los Alamos National Laboratory studied the unique properties of plutonium that can be extrapolated to the properties of related heavy element systems. Stephen Myers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory helped develop state-of-the-art computer code now used for sensitive seismic detection of potential underground nuclear explosions—an essential diagnostic for enforcing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. John Wagner from Oak Ridge National Laboratory was honored for another set of complex computer code used for modeling radiation transport in a variety of real world systems. His code has been used for designing radiation shielding and benchmarking safety systems in both civilian and military nuclear systems. Siegfried Glenzer from SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory was honored for developing a diagnostic technique that can measure the temperature in exotic states of high-density, high-temperature matter that exist in the cores of stars and within the large gaseous planets.

I would like to spend more than a few sentences telling you about Adam P. Arkin and his contribution that earned him his Lawrence Award. Arkin, of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, was honored for a comprehensive body of work that involved theory, modeling, and experimentation on the seemingly simple biological systems we call microbes. He directs a major inter-DOE laboratory collaboration called the DOE Systems Biology Knowledgebase program, or “Kbase” for short. The ambitions of this program match the intellectual breadth of this award winner. It was clear that Dr. Arkin could get in front of any audience and entice them with the excitement of his science. I’ll give you just a snippet.

He reminded the audience why the organisms we call bacteria are so important. First of all, there are far more of them than any other organisms. Scientists have estimated there are upwards of 1030 of them on our planet, translating to more than 100 billion billion bacteria for every human on Earth. Bacteria perform nearly every kind of known chemical function: from respiration to fixing nitrogen into the soil, to more complicated functions that sustain higher forms of life. We can exploit these characteristics to brew specific cultures that can help alleviate pollution on our planet, like discovering or designing microbes that eat pollutants or generate biofuels. The key questions are very basic ones, like how do these amazing little creatures work while encoding all their instructions for living on just a few hundred to a few thousand genes? Because of the pervasiveness of bacteria—one of the oldest forms of life on the planet and still the most abundant—understanding this biosystem is a huge scientific undertaking that requires thousands of bench experiments, in addition to structural data taken at major scientific user facilities. All of this data is fed into complex computer-based models. The DOE laboratory system seems to be very good at handling such large and deep collaborations that are closely connected with the best of the research universities.

Arkin’s brief speech showed me that he knows how to speak to general audiences and he is putting that talent to enviable practice. Aside from his many public talks, he has several publications geared to a general audience, and will be starring in an upcoming TV episode of “Through the Wormhole.” Given the state of scientific literacy in the United States and the constant pressure from our current political system that has seen federal funding for science decrease by more than 16% (in constant dollars) in the last three years, I believe that he deserves the Lawrence Award for these public education/communication efforts alone. Cheers to Dr. Arkin and to his co-honorees for their outstanding work, and cheers to the DOE for incubating these innovators.