Brookhaven National Laboratory: Where The Greatest Minds on Earth Meet

Just a few hours outside of New York City, off exit 68 on the Long Island Expressway, really big ideas are happening.

How big? Researchers at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) are using cutting-edge technologies to look into the birth of our Universe at the quantum level, develop the sustainable energy systems of the future, and use light to peer into the inner mysteries of nature (advancing knowledge in fields such as physics, medicine, and materials science).

Brookhaven National Laboratory is a research institution primarily funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. In terms of hardware it houses some impressive tools.
The National Synchrotron Light Source (and the improved NSLS-II slated to open in 2015) accelerates electrons at speeds approaching the speed of light to produce powerful beams in the x-ray, ultraviolet, and infrared wavelengths, which is then used to analyze the atomic structures of materials. In 2003 Roderick MacKinnon, M.D. won the Nobel Prize with the help of the NSLS, using x-ray crystallography techniques to show how proteins called ion channels help generate the nerve impulses or electrical activity movement, sensation, and thought.

Dipole magnets in particle accelerators are used to create a magnetic field and direct the particles to bend in a helical trajectory, generating electromagnetic radiation as a byproduct of the electron beam’s deceleration. The Light Source can in some way be described as a “giant microscope”, as electromagnetic radiation such as x-rays is directed through beam lines to look deep into the properties of materials. Researchers use the Light Source to research a wide range of complex problems from mechanical to biological (while visiting, we watched in on scientists analyzing the protein structure of HIV). The upcoming NSLS-II will emanate x-rays up to 10,000 times brighter than the current Light Source.

The Lab is also home to the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC), which is the only particle collider in the US. Using the RHIC scientists fire ions (atoms with a net positive or negative electrical charge) at each other in a giant ring at speeds approaching that of light. The collisions and resulting data captured from them are used to understand the “liquid nature” of the quark-gluon plasma that permeates the Universe. (Quarks are elementary particles that combine to form protons and neutrons, gluons are like glue in that they help mediate the strong force between quarks).

Interestingly, the idea of a “substance” existing throughout the Universe has long been an interest to scientists (harking back even to the Medieval and Greek eras).

Despite all of the high-tech gear, Brookhaven has an even more “secret weapon.” It’s talent. Researchers from different countries, backgrounds, and disciplines meet at the Lab to form a scientific culture focused on interdisciplinary collaboration and innovation. Dr. James Dickerson II, Assistant Director at Brookhaven’s Center for Functional Nanomaterials even suggested that researchers at the Center do not think of themselves in terms of strict backgrounds (physics, chemistry, engineering, etc.) but are working together to understand how the physical processes of nature occur and relate at a fundamental level.

According to Dickerson the Center has a dual mission. Half of the work in nanoscience research is devoted to solving the world’s energy problems (namely energy storage, conversion, and transmission). The other half of the Center’s activity is as a user-facility for the scientific community in academia, international laboratories, and industry.

Dickerson is a past chairman of the Committee on Minorities in Physics of the American Physical, and has been active in encouraging young people to pursue careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields.

“The number of underrepresented minorities that go into physics or STEM subjects is notably low compared to representation in the general populous,” said Dickerson.

“One of the challenges however…is that getting people excited about STEM areas, engineering, chemistry, physics, materials science, at a young enough age so that they’re caught; you got them on the hook, you got them excited. The next thing is to give them a clear sense that there are careers that one can have that are not just careers, they’re viable careers, exciting careers, they can even be exciting careers.”

Principle Human Resources Representative and Diversity Specialist, Terrence Buck has played an active role in connecting underrepresented students from Stony Brook University to research and careers opportunities at the Lab. Buck works extensively with the National Consortium for Graduate Degrees for Minorities in Engineering and Science (GEM), and currently holds GEM fellows from Stony Brook. Recently Buck received the 2013/2014 Diversity Champion Award from the Career Center at Stony Brook University.

Buck made the point that creating opportunities for traditionally underrepresented minorities is good for innovation in STEM fields because diversification often leads to varied and novel approaches to complex problems.

The Harlem Times spoke with recent Stony Brook University graduate and Brooklyn native Omar Morgan, who is currently interning as an assistant engineer at Brookhaven’s collider department.
“If I did have to give some advice, I would say to anyone at any stage in their educational career that it’s important to let your mind move at its own pace,” Morgan said. If you give someone an advance multiplication problem, and tell them to solve it and let’s say you give that problem to a group of people, automatically people are going to feel competitive to answer the question first. Naturally there are going to be some people who are a little quicker than others at it, and those who are a little bit slower might feel that they’re not that smart…but Your mind is a muscle. I would say to that thinking and doing things in your head, especially in science and engineering — your mind is like a muscle.”

“So sometimes it’s helpful just to stare at the problem and let the answer come to you, which will be at its own pace. You first stare at the problem (or even at a wall). As you are staring, you are building mental concentration—your mind is a muscle. You continue to stare at the problem until the answer reveals itself to you in its own time. The mind needs to move at its own pace. And eventually that you will find that, by practicing this technique, you will eventually move to the top of the class.”

At a time when there is a growing fear that the US will fail to compete globally in STEM fields, with research and tech industries booming throughout Europe and Asia, Morgan’s words couldn’t be more apt. If the US is to stay competitive in STEM, we not only need educational and research institutions that foster innovation, but we need scientific minds that constantly ask questions and challenge the limits of their knowledge.

By fostering a culture of diversity and collaboration, Brookhaven is a pipeline of scientific talent that connects academia, public policy, and industry. It’s a place where people from all over get together to ask the big questions — questions that help us make sense of the Universe, our place in it, and the steps we need to take to lead us into a sustainable future.

Stay tuned into the Harlem Times for our continued coverage of diversity and groundbreaking research at Brookhaven National Laboratory.