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Brookhaven National Lab

Rainbow over NSLS-II: Brookhaven National Laboratory’s National Synchrotron Light Source II is a state-of-the-art 3-GeV electron storage ring. Photo from BNL

Budget season brought good news for the Brookhaven National Laboratory, which may receive $291.5 million from the government to help sustain and improve two of its facilities as part of President Barack Obama’s budget request for the 2017 fiscal year.

The president requested $179.7 million of that money to go toward BNL’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider facility and the remainder to the National Synchrotron Light Source II facility. The proposed amount is $9.5 million more than what the lab received last year for the two facilities combined.

According to Brookhaven Lab spokesperson Peter Genzer, the money won’t only help the Lab’s RHIC and NSLS-II facilities run, but also help fund new experimental stations at NSLS-II. The president’s financial inquiry also includes $1.8 million for the Core Facility Revitalization project.

The project will provide the infrastructure and facilities to store data to support the lab’s growing needs, the press release said.

U.S. Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) have worked to maintain America’s science presence — and securing more federal funds for the lab helps maintain it. Schumer said he was pleased with the president’s request to increase funding for the lab, saying that an increase in funding will help keep BNL and our nation at the forefront of innovation and boost Long Island’s economy.

“We appreciate the President’s continued support for science and, in particular, Brookhaven Lab’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider and National Synchrotron Light Source II,” BNL Director Doon Gibbs said. “ We are also extremely grateful for the ongoing efforts of Senator Schumer and Senator Gillibrand — and the entire N.Y. Congressional delegation — on behalf of the Lab and its research mission.”

According to RHIC’s website, scientists study earth in its infancy and other areas that will help people better understand how the world works. The approximate 16-year-old ion collider is also the first machine in the world that can support colliding heavy ions.

The NSLS-II allows scientists to examine high-energy light waves in a variety of spectrums, including x-ray, ultraviolet and infrared. The RHIC and NSLS-II are BNL’s two largest facilities Genzer said.

He added that the “president’s budget request is the first step in the budget process for the fiscal year 2017.” The process begins on Oct. 1. In the best-case scenario, the government will agree on and vote to approve the final budget before the end of the end of September.

The senators will continue their fight to get increased funding for BNL as the lab “is a major economic engine for Long Island,” Gillibrand said.

Gillibrand said she was also pleased with the administration’s request for increased funds. Construction of NSLS-II began in 2009 and cost around $912 million. BNL expected construction to end last year.

Other members of BNL were unavailable for comment prior to publication.

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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.”

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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.”