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BNL

Sen. Kenneth LaValle, wearing hat, sits with Brookhaven National Laboratory beamline scientist Dieter Schneider. Looking on from left, BNL Director Doon Gibbs; vice president for development at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Charles Prizzi; NSLS-II director John Hill; and Stony Brook University associate vice president for Brookhaven affairs, Richard Reeder. Photo from Brookhaven National Laboratory

Thanks to the persistent support of state Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), Brookhaven National Laboratory secured $15 million from New York State to add a state-of-the-art microscope that could contribute to advances in basic science and medicine.

The national laboratory will purchase a new cryo-electron microscope and will use the funds to create a building attached to its National Synchrotron Light Source II.

“Cryo-electron microscopy is an advanced imaging technology that will significantly accelerate scientists’ understanding of molecular structures and processes generally, including many impacts in understanding disease and in aiding drug discovery,” Doon Gibbs, the laboratory director of BNL, said in an email.

BNL will use the funds to purchase the first of what they hope will be four such new microscopes. The lab is finalizing a bid, which is due by June 30 for funds from the National Institutes of Health for three additional microscopes.

“There is an exponentially increasing demand for the type of bio-structural information that such machines provide, and so we are competing to become an East Coast based national facility to serve this rapidly growing community,” James Misewich, the associate director for energy and photon sciences at BNL said in an email.

Having a suite of microscopes would enable BNL to have a spectrum of capabilities to serve the needs of its scientists and of researchers from around the world who flock to the Upton-based lab to conduct their research.

The new facility will create jobs associated with running the cryo-EM, Misewich said. If BNL wins the NIH proposal to become a national cryo-EM facility, it would also employ additional scientists, engineers, technicians and administrators to run the user program.

Misewich said he hopes scientists at nearby Stony Brook University and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory will benefit from the opportunity to use a combination of its X-ray and electron microscope probes.

Senior members of the BNL team credit LaValle for helping to secure the funds.

“The $15 million in New York State funding is the culmination of a two-year effort led by the senator to bring a cryo-EM to Brookhaven and jump-start this important effort,” Gibbs said.

LaValle suggested that the funds were well worth the investment.

“It is critically important for government to embrace and support the work of the organizations that make life-altering discoveries and better our lives, health and environment,” LaValle said in an email. “This investment will further establish world-leading prominence in the field of medical research, and position the region for additional major investments by the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Energy.”

Misewich envisions configuring one of the microscopes to allow for electron tomography, which will generate three-dimensional images of cells.

“The approach will be complementary to the X-ray imaging work we can undertake with the NSLS-II beamlines,” Misewich said.

Gibbs explained that the cryo-EM is complementary to X-ray crystallography, which is the traditional method for determining structures, which scientists already do at BNL.

“Few prescription drugs have been approved by the [Food and Drug Administration] for use in the U.S. in the last 20 years without a crystallographic study of their structure by X-rays,” Gibbs continued.

Misewich expects the new microscope could lead to new methods of detection, diagnosis and treatment for diseases like cancer or for medical challenges like antibiotic resistance.

Combining the technological tools of the new cryo-EM with the insights from the NSLS II and the nine-year-old Center for Functional Nanomaterials will enable researchers to “provide much more rapid bio-structure determination in response to needs like the ability to rapidly characterize a virus,” Misewich said.

LaValle sited this effort as a part of his ongoing commitment to build Long Island’s new high-tech economy.

The combination of BNL, SBU and CSHL “will provide a significant boost to the competitiveness of the biosciences and biotechnology communities across Long Island,” LaValle said.

Colleagues pay tribute to Peter Paul

Paul, second from right, in 2002 with colleagues David Fossan, Linwood Lee, Robert McGrath and Gene Sprouse; and Paul in a family photo. Photo from Gene Sprouse

For nearly 50 years, Setauket’s Peter Paul was a prominent member of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Stony Brook University. With his death March 11 at the age of 84, the physicist left behind a legacy that will be remembered for years to come, especially by his former colleagues.

A native of Dresden, Germany, Paul received a Ph.D. from the University of Freiburg, and immigrated to the United States when he accepted a postdoctoral position at Stanford University. 

Linwood Lee, emeritus professor, recalled when he recruited Paul in the late 1960s. A former co-worker of Lee’s worked with Paul at Stanford University and told him how impressive the physicist was. Lee knew he had to hire him during a time when he called coming to Stony Brook University “an adventure” because the school was in its infancy.

Peter Paul. Photo from Stony Brook University

Lee said Paul was marvelous, and he’s grateful he recruited the professor.

“We established a laboratory here, and from the moment he got here, he was the driving force to make us all do better,” Lee said.

Paul was a professor at the university from 1967 to 2015 and later a distinguished service professor in the department and served as chairman twice during his tenure. One of Paul’s greatest achievements was building a first-class nuclear physics group along with his colleagues at Stony Brook.

In 1973, when the physicist spearheaded a small group to develop, design and construct Stony Brook’s superconducting linear for heavy ions, an improvement of the university’s existing Van de Graaff accelerator, it became the first such machine at a university lab.

Gene Sprouse, now a distinguished John S. Toll professor at SBU, was a graduate student at Stanford University when he met Paul. He later came to Stony Brook and worked on the accelerator project with him.

“That machine was really unique. It was a very powerful accelerator at a university,” Sprouse said.

Paul Grannis, another of Paul’s colleagues at SBU, said Paul was very proud of the accelerator project.

“It enabled research that had previously not been possible to be done, and it was quite a unique facility in the country,” Grannis said. “I know Peter was very proud of that and considered it one of his major achievements.”

Paul became a member of the Nuclear Science Advisory Committee in 1980, and as chair, led the development of the 1998 Nuclear Science Long Range Plan, which in turn led to the construction of the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory.

Paul was appointed deputy director for science and technology in 1998 at BNL, and when John Marburger was appointed as President George W. Bush’s scientific advisor in 2001, Paul stepped in as interim director at the laboratory until 2003. Under Paul’s direction, BNL made many advances, including starting the construction of Brookhaven’s Center for Functional Nanomaterials, and conceptualizing the electron-ion collider as a successor to RHIC.

Peter Paul with Stony Brook University President Samuel L. Stanley, M.D. Photo from Stony Brook University

Paul returned to SBU after serving as interim director at BNL, and his ongoing success was never a surprise to those who knew him.

“Peter was very energetic and driven,” Sprouse said. “He was always pushing for excellence.”

Sprouse described Paul as a visionary who helped to create the Stony Brook University people know today, especially the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

“Throughout his career he helped to build the nuclear physics groups at Stony Brook, he helped to build the department, and then he helped to build things at Brookhaven,” Sprouse said. “He always kept an eye out for putting in place instruments and institutes that could strengthen Stony Brook in particular and Brookhaven, too.”

Grannis echoed Sprouse’s praise of Paul.

“He was very motivated to do the best that he could in all of his scientific endeavors and to insist that all those who worked with him do so,” Grannis said.

Chang Kee Jung, a SUNY distinguished professor, said when Paul returned to Stony Brook after his time at BNL, he looked for a research program to be involved in. He said he was surprised when Paul knocked on his office door one day and told him he was interested in the projects he was working on at the time.

Jung said he was hesitant at first due to Paul’s extensive experience. However, Paul assured him he would never do anything to interfere. Jung said Paul was always curious to learn more in his field, and didn’t have an ego despite all of his successes. The professor said Paul was the perfect person to have on his team, and he became an advisor to Jung. The two worked together until Paul became the university’s associate vice president for Brookhaven affairs — a position he held until his retirement in 2015.

He also remembers Paul fondly on a personal level and said he was grateful for the opportunity to visit the professor at home a couple of weeks before his death.

“Among all the people I met at Stony Brook, he was the strongest supporter of me, personally,” Jung said. “For whatever reason he liked me and the projects I was doing.”

Lee added that like many professors, Paul was always proud of his students. Many left SBU for prestigious careers, including Michael Thoennessen, chair, APS division of nuclear physics at Michigan University. Thoennessen wrote in an email Paul was his Ph.D. adviser when he attended SBU in the late 1980s.

Peter Paul. Photo from Bryant Funeral Home

“In Germany the Ph.D. adviser is called the ‘Doktor Vater’ (Ph.D. Father) and that is exactly what Peter was to his students,” Thoennessen wrote. “In addition to being a brilliant scientist and a great administrator, Peter was an amazing mentor. I would not be where I am right now without Peter’s advice and guidance.”

Grannis added that despite a demanding career, Paul led a well-rounded life.

“He had a very broad range of interests not only in science but in music, in travel, in reading,” Grannis said. “He was very well-informed on many things.”

Paul was an ardent opera-goer and hiker, and Jung remembers the professor being in his 70s and still traveling upstate to go skiing. His career provided him the opportunity to travel extensively, too. Among his trips were vacations to his homeland of Germany.

In his lifetime, Paul received numerous awards including the American Physical Society Fellow, Institute of Physics Fellow, Sloane Research Fellow, Alexander von Humboldt Senior Scientist Award and the Order of Merit First Class from the German government. Paul is also an inductee in the Long Island Technology Hall of Fame. However, his greatest honor may be the legacy he leaves behind at Stony Brook University.

“Peter was one of the people that made us a better university,” Lee said. “He was active in associating us with Brookhaven, and he was always a booster of the university, and we always boosted Peter. It was hard to keep him because he was recognized as a top scientist. He turned down some very good offers to stay here.”

Sprouse said Paul inspired many to come to SBU and helped them, with his encouragement and leadership, to develop their careers.

“I just think that he was somebody that was really dedicated to the university and wanted to build it,” he said. “For those of us who were at Stony Brook, 40, 50 years ago, Stony Brook was kind of a dream, and Peter really made it a reality.”

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BNL’s Peter Guida with Daniela Trani, a summer school student at the NASA Space Radiation Lab. Photo from BNL

Ferdinand Magellan didn’t have the luxury of sending a machine into the unknown around the world before he took to the seas. Modern humans, however, dispatch satellites, rovers and orbiters into the farthest reaches of the universe. Several months after the New Horizons spacecraft beamed back the first close-up images of Pluto from over three billion miles away, NASA confirmed the presence of water on Mars.

The Mars discovery continues the excitement over the possibility of sending astronauts to the Red Planet as early as the 2030s.

Before astronauts can take a journey between planets that average 140 million miles apart, scientists need to figure out the health effects of prolonged exposure to damaging radiation.

Each year, liaison biologist Peter Guida at the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory (NSRL) at Brookhaven National Laboratory coordinates the visits of over 400 scientists to a facility designed to determine, among other things, what radiation does to the human body and to find possible prevention or treatment for any damage.

Guida is working to “improve our understanding of the effects that space radiation from cosmic rays have on humans,” explained Michael Sivertz, a physicist at the same facility. “He would like to make sure that voyages to Mars do not have to be one-way trips.”

Guida said radiation induces un-repaired and mis-repaired DNA damage. Enough accumulated mutations can cause cancer. Radiation also induces reactive oxygen species and produces secondary damage that is like aging.

The results from these experiments could provide insights that lead to a better understanding of diseases in general and may reveal potential targets for treatment.

This type of research could help those who battle cancer, neurological defects or other health challenges, Guida said.

By observing the molecular changes tissues and cells grown in the lab undergo in model systems as they transition from healthy to cancerous, researchers can look to protect or restore genetic systems that might be especially vulnerable.

If the work done at the NSRL uncovers some of those genetic steps, it could also provide researchers and, down the road, doctors with a way of using those genes as predictors of cancer or can offer guidance in tailoring individualized medical treatment based on the molecular signature of a developing cancer, Guida suggested.

Guida conducts research on neural progenitor cells, which can create other types of cells in the nervous system, such as astrocytes. He also triggers differentiation in these cells and works with mature neurons. He has collaborated with Roger M. Loria, a professor in microbiology and immunology at Virginia Commonwealth University, on a compound that reverses the damage from radiation on the hematological, or blood, system.

The compound can increase red blood cells, hemoglobin and platelet counts even after exposure to some radiation. It also increases monocytes and the number of bone marrow cells. A treatment like this might be like having the equivalent of a fire extinguisher nearby, not only for astronauts but also for those who might be exposed to radiation through accidents like Fukushima or Chernobyl or in the event of a deliberate act.

Loria is conducting tests for Food and Drug Administration approval, Guida said.

If this compound helps astronauts, it might also have applications for other health challenges, although any other uses would require careful testing.

While Guida conducts and collaborates on research, he spends the majority of his time ensuring that the NSRL is meeting NASA’s scientific goals and objectives by supporting the research of investigators who conduct their studies at the site. He and a team of support personnel at NSRL set up the labs and equipment for these visiting scientists. He also schedules time on the beam line that generates ionizing particles.

Guida is “very well respected within the space radiation community, which is why he was chosen to have such responsibility,” said Sivertz, who has known Guida for a decade.

Guida and his wife Susan, a therapist who is in private practice, live in Searingtown.

While Guida recalls making a drawing in crayon after watching Neil Armstrong land on the moon, he didn’t seek out an opportunity at BNL because of a long-standing interest in space. Rather, his scientific interest stemmed from a desire to contribute to cancer research.

When he was 15, his mother Jennie, who was a seamstress, died after a two-year battle with cancer. Guida started out his career at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where he hoped to make at least the “tiniest contribution” to cancer research.

He pursued postdoctoral research at BNL to study the link between mutations, radiation and cancer.

Guida feels as if he’s contributed to cancer research and likes to think his mother is proud of him. “Like a good scientist,” though, he said he’s “never satisfied. Good science creates the need to do more good science. When you find something out, that naturally leads to more questions.”

Lee Michel on a Blackhawk helicopter during a training exercise in 2011. Photo by Roger Stoutenburgh

He has been to the Super Bowl, the Boston Marathon, a presidential inauguration, the Baltimore Grand Prix, the Rockefeller Tree Lighting and the ball drop in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Lee Michel is neither a politician nor an athlete: He is part of a national, first-response team, called the Radiological Assistant Program.

The program is a unit of the Department of Energy, which assists local, state and federal agencies to characterize the environment, assess the impact to the local population and support decision makers on steps to minimize the hazards of a radiological incident.

Michel is the training and outreach coordinator in Region 1 of the program. He works with partner agencies around the country to deal with everything from the discovery of radiological material that someone might have accidentally brought home from a work site to an intentional detonation of a dirty bomb.

His job is a “full soup-to-nuts response to radiological material that shouldn’t be wherever it is,” Michel said.

He trains people at facilities around the country to understand “how to detect [radiation], how to contain it, how to identify it and how to mitigate it,” Michel said.

Kathleen McIntyre, the contractor operations manager for RAP Region 1, said her group is the first on-scene emergency response team representing the Department of Energy. One of nine programs around the country, the BNL team is responsible for a region that stretches from Maine to Maryland and to the Pennsylvania-Ohio border.

In addition to sports events and conventions, the team also assists with other high-profile events. In late September, the BNL RAP team will work with other agencies during Pope Francis’s visit to the United States.

In his job, Michel often travels to ensure he’s appropriately trained so he can teach other first-responder agencies. In the last several months, he’s been to Chicago, Albuquerque, Las Vegas, Boston, Connecticut and New Jersey.

These trips are necessary to create effective collaborations with local partners, said McIntyre. “Part of the thing that [Michel] does and does well is coordinate with our first-responder partners,” McIntyre said. The training and outreach ensure “if we are ever in a situation where we need to work together, this isn’t the first time we’ve met each other.”

At left, Lee Michel’s uncle, Morton Rosen, was a photographer at BNL for more than 35 years. At right, his grandfather, Isadore Rosen, was stationed at Camp Upton during WWI. Photo left from BNL Archives; right from Lee Michel
At left, Lee Michel’s uncle, Morton Rosen, was a photographer at BNL for more than 35 years. At right, his grandfather, Isadore Rosen, was stationed at Camp Upton during WWI. Photo left from BNL Archives; right from Lee Michel

While the mission hasn’t changed for the five years Michel has been in his role, the mechanisms have evolved.

“The equipment we’re using is much more sophisticated than what we had,” Michel said. “The software that runs the system or is used in conjunction with the system is much more advanced.”

Indeed, McIntyre said Michel regularly has to remain updated on the latest software and equipment, in the same way an owner of a laptop has to remain current on electronic updates.

Michel “has to be conversant with all these” systems, she said. “He has to hit the ground running. We don’t own every piece of radiological equipment out there. He needs to understand whatever he’s going to teach.”

McIntyre gives Michel “great kudos” for “rolling up his sleeves” as he tries to stay abreast of the changing technology.

In addition to training, Michel does exercises and drills with response teams, keeping the groups prepared to react to a wide range of potential radiological problems or events.

While the Radiological Assistance Program only has three full-time employees at BNL, the facility includes 26 volunteers.

Michel has been dealing with radiation for over 30 years, starting with eight years in the navy from 1981 to 1989 when he was a nuclear power operator.

Born and raised on Long Island, Michel is the third generation in his family to work at the Upton facility. His grandfather, Isadore Rosen, was stationed at Camp Upton during World War I. His uncle, Morton Rosen, took pictures for BNL for over 35 years. Michel, who lives in Holtsville, has two daughters, 26-year old Heather and 22-year old Michelle.

As for a fourth generation at BNL, Michel holds out some hope. “I would love to have one of them work here,” he said. He’s even entertained the idea of his seven-month old granddaughter Jemma one day contributing to BNL.

While the work involves traveling to high-profile events, it’s sometimes tough to soak in the atmosphere.

The 2009 inauguration involved working 14-hour shifts in single digits, McIntyre said. After their work, they come back for more assignments. These contractors and volunteers “who serve on the RAP teams are dedicated professionals.”

Builds upon revitalization efforts and Connect LI

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, center, along with regional leaders, announced a new regional plan on Tuesday. Photo from the county executive’s office

As the percentage of youth on Long Island declines, regional leaders are determined to entice young people to move in and stay, but their plan comes with a price.

On Tuesday, County Executive Steve Bellone (D) and several regional leaders, including Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R), announced they are seeking $350 million to fund the Long Island Innovation Zone, I-Zone, plan. I-Zone aims to connect Long Island’s transit-oriented downtown areas, like New Village in Patchogue, the Meadows at Yaphank and the planned Ronkonkoma Hub, to institutions like Stony Brook University, Brookhaven National Laboratory and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

The I-Zone plan emphasizes the use of a bus rapid transit, or BRT, system  that runs north to south and would connect Stony Brook University and Patchogue. There will also be a paralleling hiking and biking trail, and the system will serve as a connection between the Port Jefferson, Ronkonkoma and Montauk Long Island Rail Road lines.

The goal is to make Long Island more appealing to the younger demographic and avoid local economic downturns.

According to the Long Island Index, from 2000 to 2009, the percentage of people aged 25-34 decreased by 15 percent. The majority of these individuals are moving to major cities or places where transportation is readily accessible.

“We must challenge ourselves because if we don’t, we have an Island at risk,” Romaine said. Government officials acknowledged that without younger people living on Long Island the population will be unable to sustain the local economy. Fewer millennials means there are less people who will purchase property and contribute to the success of businesses in the area.

The proposal comes after Governor Andrew Cuomo’s (D) call for regional planning.

The plan also builds upon the Ronkonkoma Hub plan, with the installation of sewers and a new parking area. The I-Zone proposal claims to improve Long Island’s water quality, as funding will help connect sewers through Islip downtown areas to the Southwest Sewer District.

Additionally, the plan calls for the construction of a new airport terminal on the north side of Long Island MacArthur Airport in Islip and for the relocation of the Yaphank train station in closer proximity to Brookhaven National Laboratory.

“We have all that stuff [access to recreational activities, education center and downtown areas] here but we don’t have a connection. We don’t have any linked together,” said Justin Meyers, Suffolk’s assistant deputy county executive for communications.

Bellone and Romaine, as well as Stony Brook University President Samuel Stanley, Islip Town Supervisor Angie Carpenter (R), Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), Long Island Regional Planning Council Chairman John Cameron, Patchogue Mayor Paul Pontieri, Vice President of Development and Community Relations at CSHL Charles Prizzi, Chief Planning Officer of the Long Island Rail Road Elisa Picca, Director of BNL Doon Gibbs, and founder of Suburban Millennial Institute Jeff Guillot, were involved with the I-Zone proposal.

If funding for the project is received, construction could begin in approximately two years, Meyers said, adding that constructing the BRT and the hiking and biking trial would take as few as five years.

Bellone said that without younger people moving in, the trend could lead to the Island’s economic stagnation.

“We are aging faster than any other region in our country,” he said. “The inevitable result of that will be an ever-growing population that naturally is pulling more social services infrastructure.”

Olness remembered as brilliant scientist, education advocate

John Olness with his wife Margaret. Photo from Richard Olness

He did what he loved, and was loved for it.

John William Olness, a nuclear physicist and a Long Island resident since 1961, died on Feb. 15 at the age of 85.

Olness is survived by his wife Margaret, their sons Robert, Richard, Frederick and Christopher and their daughter Kristin.

“He was a creative parent,” son Richard said in a phone interview. “I wouldn’t trade him for the world.”

Olness was born in 1929, in Saskatchewan, Canada, while his father was teaching at a junior college. The family returned to their farm in northern Minnesota when John was young, and that is where he grew up.

Olness received a doctorate in nuclear physics from Duke University in 1957 where he met Margaret. He moved to Long Island from Dayton, Ohio, in 1961, then he began his career at Brookhaven National Laboratory in 1963 where he stayed until his retirement in 2000 after 37 years of service. John and Margaret married in 1958 and moved to Stony Brook in 1968.

John Olness poses for a photo with his family and family friends. Photo from Richard Olness
John Olness poses for a photo with his family and family friends. Photo from Richard Olness

“He got to do what he wanted,” Margaret said in a phone interview. “He was one of the lucky people who loved what he did for a living. You can’t beat that.”

“John worked with many of the visiting scientists who came to BNL to use the facilities, including Sir Denys Wilkinson (Oxford University), D. Allan Bromley (Yale and, later, science adviser to President George H.W. Bush) and future Space Shuttle astronaut Joseph Allen,” son Robert said of his father’s time at BNL, in an email.

Margaret identified her husband’s passions as physics first and music second.

In his leisure time Olness was a Little League baseball coach; and a founding member and trombone player with the Memories of Swing, a big band that performed around Long Island. He also served as a vice president of the Three Village school board in 1975-76. Kristin said that his desire to be on the school board was in large part to fight for the budgets of the music, sports and arts programs that are seemingly always the first to go when money gets thin.

Olness loved baseball, tennis and basketball, and often spent hours on the phone discussing the Detroit Tigers baseball team with his father, who lived in Michigan. He also played football in high school and college, Margaret said.

Olness was a supportive father and husband, according to Margaret. Their children have gone on to enjoy rewarding careers in wide-ranging walks of life, thanks in no small part to that parental support.

Frederick is a professor and physics department chair at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas; Robert is a major in the Army Reserve, awaiting his next deployment; Kristin has just finished a year on Broadway in “Cabaret,” and was also a member of the cast in the show’s 1998 revival; Richard is an actuary for the Department of Defense; and Christopher is a professional trombonist on Broadway currently playing in “On the Town,” the hit musical comedy.

“Dad put emphasis on education, and he and Mom supported us in exploring the arts and recreational sports,” Richard said in an email. “And in the later years, he encouraged us each to find a career we would enjoy.”

A memorial service will be held for John Olness on Thursday, July 2, at Setauket Presbyterian Church.

Shawn Serbin. Photo by Bethany Helzer

While judging a book by its cover may be misleading, judging a forest by looking at the top of the canopy can be informative. What’s more, that can be true even from satellite images.

An expert in a field called “remote sensing,” Shawn Serbin, an assistant scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratory, takes a close look at the spectral qualities of trees, gathering information that generates a better understanding of how an area responds to different precipitation, temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Serbin is “on the cutting edge” of this kind of analysis, said Alistair Rogers, a scientist at BNL who collaborates with and supervises Serbin. “He’s taking this to a new level.” Serbin and Rogers are a part of the BNL team working on a new, decade-long project funded by the Department of Energy called Next Generation Ecosystem Experiments — Tropics.

The multinational study will develop a forest ecosystem model that goes from the bedrock to the top of the forest canopy and aims to include soil and vegetation processes at a considerably stronger resolution than current models.

The NGEE Tropics study follows a similar decade-long, DOE-funded effort called NGEE-Arctic, which is another important biological area. Serbin is also working on that arctic study and ventured to Barrow, Alaska, last summer to collect field data.

Shawn Serbin. Photo by Bethany Helzer
Shawn Serbin. Photo by Bethany Helzer

Working with Rogers, Serbin, who joined BNL last March, said his group will try to understand the controls on tropical photosynthesis, respiration and allocation of carbon.

Serbin uses field spectrometers and a range of airborne and satellite sensors that measure nitrogen, water, pigment content and the structural compound of leaves to get at a chemical fingerprint. The spectroscopic data works on the idea that the biochemistry, shape and other properties of leaves and plant canopies determine how light energy is absorbed, transmitted and reflected. As the energies and biochemistry of leaves changes, so do their optical properties, Serbin explained.

“Our work is showing that spectroscopic data can detect and quantify the metabolic properties of plants and help us to understand the photosynthetic functioning of plants, remotely, with the ultimate goal to be able to monitor photosynthesis directly from space,” Serbin said.

NGEE-Tropics, which received $100 million in funding from the DOE, brings together an international team of researchers. This project appealed to Serbin when he was seeking an appointment as a postdoctoral student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “It’s one of the reasons I was happy to come to BNL,” Serbin said. “To have the opportunity to collaborate closely with so many top-notch researchers on a common goal is incredibly rare.”

The tropics study includes scientists from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge and Pacific Northwest national laboratories and also includes researchers from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, NASA and numerous groups from other countries.

In the first phase of this 10-year study, scientists will design pilot studies to couple improvements in computer modeling with observations in the tropics. These early experiments will include work in Manaus, Brazil, to see how forests react to less precipitation. In Puerto Rico, researchers will see how soil fertility impacts the regrowth of forests on abandoned agricultural land.

Serbin expects to work in all three regions. He plans to do some pilot work early on to identify how to deal with the logistics of the experiments.

“These are designed to ‘shake out the bugs’ and figure out exactly how we can do what we need to do,” he said.

Serbin lives in Sound Beach with his partner Bethany Helzer, a freelance photographer whose work includes book covers and who has been featured in Elle Girl Korea and Brava Magazine. The couple has two cats, Bear and Rocky, whom they rescued in Wisconsin. Helzer has joined Serbin on his field expeditions and has been a “trooper,” contributing to work in California in which the couple endured 130-degree heat in the Coachella Valley.

“Having her along has indeed shown that when you are in the field and focused on the work, you can miss some of the beauty that surrounds you,” Serbin said.

Serbin said the NGEE-Tropics work, which has involved regular contact through Skype, email and workshops, will offer a better understanding of a biome that is instrumental in the carbon cycle. “Our work will directly impact future global climate modeling projections,” he said.

Eric Stach, group leader of Electron Microscopy at BNL and Special Assistant for Operando Experimentation for the Energy Sciences Directorate. Photo from BNL

In a carpool, one child might be the slowest to get ready, hunting for his second sneaker, putting the finishing touches on the previous night’s homework, or taming a gravity-defying patch of hair. For that group, the slowest child is the rate-limiting step, dictating when everyone arrives at school.

Similarly, chemical reactions have a rate-limiting step, in which the slower speed of one or more reactions dictates the speed and energy needed for a reaction. Scientists use catalysts to speed up those slower steps.

In the world of energy conversion, where experts turn biomass into alcohol, knowing exactly what happens with these catalysts at the atomic level, can be critical to improving the efficiency of the process. A better and more efficient catalyst can make a reaction more efficient and profitable.

That’s where Brookhaven National Laboratory’s Eric Stach enters the picture. The group leader of Electron Microscopy, Stach said there are several steps that are rate-limiting in converting biomass to ethanol.

By using the electron microscope at Center for Functional Nanomaterials, Stach can get a better structural understanding of how the catalysts work and find ways to make them even more efficient.

“If you could lower the energy cost” of some of the higher-energy steps, “the overall system becomes more efficient,” Stach said.

Studying catalysts as they are reacting, rather than in a static way, provides “tremendous progress that puts BNL and the Center for Functional Nanomaterials at the center” of an important emerging ability, said Emilio Mendez, the director of CFN. Looking at individual atoms that might provide insight into ways to improve reactions in energy conversion and energy storage is an example of a real impact Stach has had, Mendez said.

Stach works in a variety of areas, including Earth-abundant solar materials, and battery electrodes, all in an effort to see the structure of materials at an atomic scale.

“I literally take pictures of other people’s materials,” Stach said, although the pictures are of electrons rather than of light.

Stach, who has been working with electron microscopes for 23 years, gathers information from the 10-foot tall microscope, which has 25 primary lenses and numerous smaller lenses that help align the material under exploration.

His work enables him to see how electrons, which are tiny, negatively charged particles, bounce or scatter as they interact with atoms. These interactions reveal the structure of the test materials. When these electrons collide with a gold atom, they bounce strongly, but when they run into a lighter hydrogen or oxygen atom, the effect is smaller.

Since Stach arrived at BNL in 2010, he and his staff have enabled the number of users of the electron microscope facility to triple, estimated Mendez.

“The program has grown because of his leadership,” Mendez said. “He was instrumental in putting the group together and in enlarging the group. Thanks to him, directly or indirectly, the program has thrived.”

Lately, working with experts at the newly-opened National Synchrotron Light Source II, Stach, among other researchers, is looking in real time at changes in the atomic structure of materials like batteries.

In February, Stach was named Special Assistant for Operando Experimentation for the Energy Sciences Directorate.

“The idea is to look at materials while they are performing,” he said. Colleagues at the NSLS-II will shoot a beam of x-rays through the battery to “see where the failure points are,” he said. At the same time, Stach and his team will confirm and explore the atomic-scale structure of materials at Electron Microscopy.

Working with batteries, solar cells, and other materials suits Stach, who said he “likes to learn new things frequently.”

Residents of Setauket, Stach and his wife Dana Adamson, who works at North Shore Montessori School, have an 11-year old daughter, Gwyneth, and a nine year-old son, Augustus. The family routinely perambulates around Melville Park with their black lab, Lola.

In his work, Stach said he often has an idea of the structure of a material when he learns about its properties or composition, even before he uses the electron microscope. “The more interesting [moments] are when you get it wrong,” he said. “That’s what indicates something fundamentally new is going on, and that’s what’s exciting.”