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Brookhaven National Laboratory

James Misewich Photo from BNL

By Daniel Dunaief

Even as the pandemic continues to cast a pall over the prospects for the economy, the federal government is finding ways to support science. Recently, as a part of a $625 billion award to a host of institutions, the Department of Energy earmarked $115 million over five years for a part of a project led by Brookhaven National Laboratory.

The science, called quantum information systems, could have applications in a wide range of industries, from health care to defense to communications, enabling higher levels of artificial intelligence than the current binary system computers have used for decades. By benefiting from the range of options between the 0s and 1s that typically dictate computer codes, researchers can speed up and enhance the development of programs that use artificial intelligence.

The investment “underscores the confidence the federal government has with respect to how important this technology is,” said James Misewich, the Associate Laboratory Director for Energy and Photon Sciences at BNL. “Despite the challenges of the time, this was a priority.”

Local leaders hailed the effort for its scientific potential and for the future benefit to the Long Island economy.

“I have seen strong support inside of Congress and the administration for funding requests coming out of the Department of Energy for ideas on how to move the DOE’s mission forward,” said U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY-1). “I have also seen a very high level of appreciation and respect for BNL, its leadership, its staff, its mission and its potential.”

Zeldin said the average American spends more time than ever engaging with technologies and other discoveries that were made possible by the first quantum revolution. “Here we are on the verge of a second quantum revolution and BNL is at the forefront of it,” Zeldin said.

Zeldin sees limitless possibilities for quantum information science, as researchers believe these efforts will lead to advancements in health care, financial services, national security and other aspects of everyday life. “This next round of quantum advancements seeks to overcome some of the vulnerabilities that were identified and the imperfections in the first wave,” he said.

State Senator James Gaughran (D-Northport) expects quantum science to provide a significant benefit to the region. “We believe this is going to be a major part of our economic future,” he said. “It is a huge victory for Long Island.”

The return on investment for the state and the federal government will also materialize in jobs growth. This is “going to employ a lot of people,” Gaughran said. “It will help to rebuild the type of economy we need on Long Island. The fact that we are on the front lines of that will lead to all sorts of private sector development.”

While the technology has enormous potential, it is still in early enough stages that research groups need to work out challenges before they can fully exploit quantum technology. BNL, specifically, will make quantum error correction a major part of their effort.

As quantum computers start working, they run into a limitation called a noisy intermediate scale quantum problem, or NISQ. These problems come from errors that lower the confidence of getting the right answer. The noise is a current limitation for the best quantum computers. “They can only go so far before you end up with an error that is fatal” to the computing process, Misewich said.

By using the co-design center for quantum advantage, Misewich and his partners hope to use the materials that “beat the NISQ error by having the combination of folks with a great team that are all talking to one another.”

The efforts will use a combination of classical computing and theory to determine the next steps in the process of building a reliable quantum information system-driven computer.

Misewich’s group is also focusing on communication. The BNL scientists hope to provide a network that enables distributed computing. In classical computing, this occurs regularly, as computer scientists distribute a problem over multiple computers.

Similarly, with quantum computing, scientists plan to distribute the problem across computers that need to talk to each other.

Misewich is pleased with the combination of centers that will collaborate through this effort. “The federal government picked these centers because they are somewhat complementary,” he said. The BNL-led team has 24 partners, which include IBM, Stony Brook University, SUNY Polytechnic Institute, Yale University, Princeton University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, Columbia University and Howard University, among others.

“We had to identify the best team and bring in the right people to fill the gaps,” Misewich explained.

Using a combination of federal funds and money from New York State, BNL plans to build a new beamline at the National Synchrotron Lightsource II, which will operate at very low temperatures, allowing scientists to study the way these materials work under real word conditions.

BNL would like the work they are doing to have an application in calculations in three areas: the theory of the nucleus, quantum chemistry, which explores ways to design better materials, and catalysis.

A quantum computer could help make inroads in some challenging calculations related to electron-electron interactions in superconducting materials, Misewich said, adding that the entire team feels a “tremendous sense of excitement” about the work they are doing.”

Indeed, the group has been working together for close to two years, which includes putting the team in place, identifying the problems they want to tackle and developing a compelling strategy for the research to make a difference.

The group is expecting to produce a considerable amount of research and will likely develop various patents that will “hopefully transfer the technology so companies can start to build next generation devices,” Misewich said.

Along with local leaders, Misewich hopes these research efforts will enable the transfer of this technology to a future economy for New York State.

This effort will also train a numerous graduate and post doctoral students, who will be the “future leaders that are going to drive that economy,” Misewich said.

The research will explore multiple levels of improvement in the design of quantum computers which they hope will all work at the same time to provide an exponential improvement in the ability of the computer to help solve problems and analyze data.

Anže Slosar. Photo from BNL

By Daniel Dunaief

Ever since Ancient Romans and Greeks looked to the stars at night, humans have turned those pinpricks of light that interrupt the darkness into mythological stories.

Two years from now, using a state-of-the-art telescope located in Cerro Pachón ridge in Northern Chile, scientists may take light from 12 billion light years away and turn it into a factual understanding of the forces operating on distant galaxies, causing the universe to expand and the patterns of movement for those pinpricks of light.

While they are awaiting the commissioning of the Vera C. Rubin Observatory, researchers including Brookhaven National Laboratory Physicist Anže Slosar are preparing for a deluge of daily data — enough to fill 15 laptops each night.

An analysis coordinator of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope’s dark energy science collaboration, Slosar and other researchers from around the world will have a unique map with catalogs spanning billions of galaxies.

Anže Slosar

“For the past five years, we have been getting ready for the data without having any data,” said Slosar. Once the telescope starts producing information, the information will come out at a tremendous rate.

“Analyzing it will be a major undertaking,” Slosar explained in an email. “We are getting ready and hope that we’ll be ready in time, but the proof is in the pudding.”

The Vera C. Rubin Observatory is named for the late astronomer who blazed a trail for women in the field from the time she earned her Bachelor’s Degree from Vassar until she made an indelible mark studying the rotation of stars.

Slosar called Rubin a “true giant of astronomy” whose work was “instrumental in the discovery of dark matter.”

Originally called the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), the Rubin Observatory has several missions, including understanding dark matter and dark energy, monitoring hazardous asteroids and the remote solar system, observing the transient optical sky and understanding the formation and structure of the Milky Way.

The study of the movement of distant galaxies, as well as the way objects interfere with the light they send into space, helps cosmologists such as Slosar understand the forces that affect the universe as well as current and ancient history since the Big Bang.

According to Slosar, the observatory will address some of its goals by collecting data in five realms including examining large structures, which are clustered in the sky. By studying the statistical properties of the galaxies as a function of their distance, scientists can learn about the forces operating on them.

Another area of study involves weak lensing. A largely statistical measure, weak lensing allows researchers to explore how images become distorted when their light source passes near a gravitational force. The lensing causes the image to appear as if it were printed on a cloth and stretched out so that it becomes visually distorted.

In strong lensing, a single image can appear as two sources of light when it passes through a dense object. Albert Einstein worked out the mathematical framework that allows researchers to make these predictions. The first of thousands of strong lensing effects was discovered in 1979. Slosar likens this process to the way light behind a wine glass bends and appears to be coming from two directions as it passes around and through the glass.

The fourth effect, called a supernova, occurs when an exploding star reaches critical mass and collapses under its own weight, releasing enough light to make a distant star brighter than an entire galaxy. A supernova in the immediate vicinity of Earth would be so bright, “it would obliterate all life on Earth.”

With the observatory scanning the entire sky, scientists might see these supernova every day. Using the brightness of the supernova, scientists can determine the distance to the object.

Scientists hope they will be lucky enough to see a supernova in a strongly lensed galaxy. Strong lensing amplifies the light and would allow scientists to see the supernova that are otherwise too distant for the telescope to observe.

Finally, the observatory can explore galaxy clusters, which are a rare collection of galaxies. The distribution of these galaxies in these clusters and how they are distributed relative to each other can indicate the forces operating within and between them.

The BNL scientist, who is originally from Slovenia, is a group leader for the BNL team, which has seven researchers, including post docs. As the analysis coordinator of the dark energy science collaboration, he also coordinates 300 people. Their efforts, he said, involve a blend of independent work following their particular interests and a collective effort to prepare for the influx of data.

Slosar said his responsibility is to have a big-picture overview of all the pieces the project needs. He is thrilled that this project, which was so long in the planning and development stage, is now moving closer to becoming a reality. He said he has spent five years on the project, while some people at BNL have spent closer to 20 years, as LSST was conceived as a dark matter telescope in 1996.

Scientists hope the observatory will produce new information that informs current understanding and forms the basis of future theories.

As a national laboratory, BNL was involved in numerous phases of development for the observatory, which had several different leaders. The SLAC National Accelerator in Stanford led the development of the camera that will be integrated into the telescope. BNL will also continue to play a role in the data analysis and interpretation.

“Fundamentally, I just want to understand how the universe operates and why it is like this and not different,” said Slosar.

Ivar Strand Photo courtesy of BNL

By Daniel Dunaief

Ivar Strand had to put on a suit at home to interview virtually for a new job.

In the midst of the pandemic, Brookhaven National Laboratory was looking for a Manager of Research Partnerships in the Strategic Partnership Program and, despite the fact that the lab was limiting the people who were on site, was moving forward to fill a job opening.

“It was a strange situation,” Strand said, but the job piqued his interest, particularly because he’d be working with Martin Schoonen, the leader of BNL’s Strategic Partnership Programs office and an associate laboratory director for environment, biology, nonproliferation and national security. Schoonen and Strand, who worked together at Stony Brook in the late 1990’s, have known each other for over 25 years.

While Strand worked at Stony Brook as an Assistant Vice President of Sponsored Programs, he had a visiting appointment at BNL for five years, from 2005 to 2010. Several of the staff at BNL “remembered who I was, which made the transition a little bit easier,” he said.

Strand most recently worked at Long Island University, where he was the Executive Director in the Office of Sponsored Projects.

Schoonen was pleased to welcome Strand to the BNL fold. “[He is] taking on a pivotal role to develop contractual arrangements with potential partners and assist with growing and diversifying the labs funding sources,” Schoonen said in a statement.

In effect, Strand is facilitating collaborations among institutions. He will facilitate not only the connections and collaborations, but also encourage broadening and deepening professional connections to create either project specific or ongoing strategic partnerships

Strand will work to increase the awareness of the capabilities BNL can provide to researchers, entrepreneurs, and investors. The main drawback in a job he started on May 26 has been that he hasn’t been able to “build face-to-face relationships,” he said. Speaking with people for the first time through web-based platforms is not the same as running into someone who is walking across the site.

Building the relationship with the Department of Energy also represents a new challenge for Strand, who has previously worked with educational institutions as well as with Northwell Health.

“I spent my whole career building partnerships at various research institutions,” he said. After facilitating those collaborations, Strand has entered into agreements and then moved one. At BNL, he has the added dynamic of “making sure it satisfies the requirements of the DOE.” The scope of his work comprises all the research funding coming into the lab outside of the direct money that comes from the DOE, which represents about 90 percent of the funds for research at the lab.

Some of these other initiatives are collaborative, which involve DOE funds that also have a requirement to find a company to contribute financially, such as the Technology Commercialization Fund.

Working with finance and departmental business managers, Strand oversees the non-direct DOE money that comes in. When educational institutions and companies participate, particularly to supply funding, Strand and the strategic partnership team become a part of the conversation.

BNL often competes against the other national labs for major projects. Once the government selects a winner, as it did for the construction of the Electron Ion Collider, the DOE often asks the lead on the project to tap into the expertise and talents of the other institutions. When BNL recently won the EIC contract over Jefferson Laboratory in Virginia, the DOE asked BNL to partner with Jefferson to build the facility. New York State originally agreed to contribute $100 million to the construction of the EIC. Strand said the lab is hopeful that the commitment would come through.

In addition to the scientific discoveries that the EIC will bring, it is also a construction project that will provide the state with jobs. “I’m involved in some of the discussions in order to provide information about the project,” Strand said.

The transition to a government lab will require Strand to maneuver through structured agreements from the DOE, which is a bit of a challenge. The DOE uses structured agreements, while educational institutions also do but often are willing to use the agreements the sponsors propose.

Strand is pleased that BNL recently received approval to participate in the Atom Consortium, which was started by Glaxo and the University of California at San Francisco. The negotiation had been going on for several years. “It allows us to enhance our big data computing capabilities and expertise,” he explained.

Strand is excited about rejoining BNL. “I’ve always wanted to work in the lab and understand how best to build collaborations under the government umbrella,” he said.

Strand hoped his unconventional approach to some of the partnership challenges will work in the context of the structured environment of a national laboratory.

Indeed, in 2007, when he was working at Stony Brook, the university received the funds to buy a supercomputer. The two institutions, however, had decided to house the supercomputer at BNL, which made it a “challenging transaction” for all parties. He and others had to help Stony Brook become an enlisted partner, which allowed BNL to house the supercomputer on site.

In the bigger picture, Strand said he and Schoonen are reviewing where the lab will be from a strategic perspective in five years. In addition to industry, they are looking to collaborate with other federal sponsors with whom they haven’t traditionally partnered. They have to make sure that these efforts conform with DOE’s growth agenda.

A first-generation American whose parents were born in Norway, Strand said his parents met in the United States. A resident of South Setauket, Strand lives with his wife Maritza, who is an implementation specialist for ADT payroll. A tennis player and golfer, Strand alternates visiting and hosting his brother, who lives in Norway and is a veterinarian.

Strand is looking forward to his ongoing collaborations with Schoonen. “Having worked with him in the past, I have a lot of respect” for Schoonen, Strand said. “I jumped at the chance to be reunited with him. He’s an unbelievably great guy to work for.”

Kahille Dorsinvil. Photo courtesy of BNL

By Daniel Dunaief

The show must go on, even in science.

After 70 years of bringing residents into their high tech facility to see some of the cutting-edge technology for themselves and to interact with the scientists from around the world who ask questions about the nature of matter, the universe, energy, weather and myriad other questions, Brookhaven National Laboratory plans to continue the tradition of Summer Sundays, albeit virtually.

Starting this Sunday, Aug. 16, with a virtual explanation video and question and answer session with several scientists, the Department of Energy laboratory will welcome those curious about their labs back, albeit virtually. The first session will begin with a video about the National Synchrotron Lightsource II, a facility that cost close to $1 billion to construct and that has numerous beamlines that enable researchers to see everything from the molecules of a battery in action to cutting edge interactions in biochemistry.

This week’s session, which will run from 3:30 to 5 p.m. will be available on BNL’s YouTube channel. Participants who would like to ask questions during the session can submit them in writing through the lab’s social media accounts or by sending an email to [email protected] A moderator will direct questions to a panel. The other programs are on August 23rd for the Center for Functional Nanomaterials and August 30th for the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider.

“Summer Sundays are a large public event and clearly that’s not something anyone is doing right now,” said Kahille Dorsinvil, Principal Stakeholder Relations Specialist and Summer Sundays Coordinator at BNL, who has been working at BNL for 14 years. “People probably thought they’d see us in 2021, [but] we’re still doing science and we’re still trying to share what we’re doing.”

The virtual event has the advantage of allowing the lab to serve as a host for a much larger group of people, who aren’t limited by seats or by social distancing rules. “We tried to make it so there was no limit to who could watch or participate with us online,” explained Dorsinvil.

Participants will watch a short video tour and will then have an opportunity to interact with panelists. The videos will include footage shot from numerous angles.

The participants during a typical in-person Summer Sundays event range across the age spectrum, as BNL promotes the effort as a family event.

Summer Sundays appeal to residents who have already attended similar events in prior years. Indeed, when the lab asks visitors if this is their first time, about half have been to the site before. “Some are our best friends come every year,” Dorsinvil said.

Dorsinvil grew up on Long Island, visiting the lab when she was in ninth grade at Newfield High School in Selden. Through the program, and apprenticeship program, which currently exists as STEM prep for rising tenth graders, she focused on a different science topic each week, including basic chemistry and the environment.

Dorsinvil was already interested in science, but visiting BNL “made a difference in how I continued” in the field, she said.

Seven students took top honors and 15 others received honorable mentions in the first-ever virtual version of the annual elementary school science fair sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton. Girls and boys in kindergarten to grade 6 entered 129 science and engineering projects for the competition. They represented 38 elementary schools across Suffolk County.

The seven students to receive top honors as well as medals and ribbons are kindergartener Jude Roseto of Cutchogue East Elementary School, Mattituck-Cutchogue Union Free School District, “Friction with Bubbles”; first grader Emerson Spooner of Raynor Country Day School, “Save the Earth: One Plastic Straw at a Time”; second grader Sara Jain of Tamarac Elementary School, Sachem Central School District, “Shrink It Up”; and third grader Mia Trani of Fort Salonga Elementary School, Kings Park Central School District, “Housing the Homeless.”

Top honors also went to fourth grader Rebecca Bartha of Raynor Country Day School, “Dynamic Duckweed: A Solution to Pollution in Local Water”; fifth grader Reilly Riviello of Cherry Avenue Elementary School, Sayville Public Schools, “What Material is the best to protect your property from Flash Flooding” and sixth grader Emma Tjersland of Hauppauge Middle School, Hauppauge School District, “Drug Facts: Impacts of Medicine Exposure on Daphnia Magna Heart Rate.”

“Thinking like scientists and engineers is so important for students — asking questions, testing assumptions, drawing conclusions, and thinking about future research,” said Amanda Horn, a Brookhaven Lab educator who coordinated both the virtual science fair and a new Science Share program. “The Lab has hosted science fairs for years to encourage students and we didn’t want COVID-19 to stop us in 2020.”

Science fairs at Brookhaven Lab were typically held in person at the Lab site and students, their families, teachers, and school administrators were invited to attend. With schools closed and Brookhaven Lab’s site mostly inaccessible to limit the spread of COVID-19, Horn, Scott Bronson and their colleagues in Brookhaven’s Office of Educational Programs (OEP) quickly adjusted plans to hold the 2020 science competition virtually.

As in years past, students first qualified for the Lab’s fair by winning their schools’ “local” science fairs, some of which were also held virtually. Projects completed by individual students and groups were accepted — one project per grade per school.

Instead of bringing projects to Brookhaven Lab for an all-day on-site event, parents and teachers submitted photos of students’ projects. OEP staff then distributed the photographs and a rubric among 23 judges, comprising Brookhaven Lab scientists, engineers, and technical staff as well as teachers from local elementary schools. To maintain objectivity and limit potential biases, information such as students’ names, schools, and districts was not shared.

The 15 students who received Honorable Mentions were kindergarteners Taran Sathish Kumar of Bretton Woods Elementary School, Hauppauge School District, “Strength of Spaghetti” and Evelyn Van Winckel of Fort Salonga Elementary School, Kings Park Central School District, “Are Your Hands Clean?”; first-graders Mason Rothstein of Lincoln Avenue Elementary School, Sayville Public Schools, “3,2,1…Let It Rip” and John Henry of Frank J. Carasiti Elementary School, Rocky Point Union Free School District, “Lego Rubber Band Cars”; and second-graders Agnes Van Winckel of Fort Salonga Elementary School, Kings Park Central School District, “The Flight of a Football” and Cassie Danseraeu and Katelynn Hausmann of West Middle Island Elementary School, Longwood Central School District, “Can Aloe Vera Juice Save Strawberries from Mold?”

Honorable mentions were also given to third-graders Mihir Sathish Kumar of Bretton Woods Elementary School, Hauppauge School District, “Strength of Electromagnets” and Matthew Mercorella of Sunrise Drive Elementary School, Sayville Public Schools, “Think Twice Before Melting the Ice”; fourth-graders Samuel Canino of R.J.O. Intermediate School, Kings Park Central School District, “Riddled With Puck Shot,” Jack Gomez of R.J.O. Intermediate School, Kings Park Central School District, “Infinipower” and Madelyn Kalinowski of Laurel Hill School, “Wash Away Germs”; fifth-graders Alexandra Barry of Remsenburg-Speonk Elementary School, Remsenburg-Speonk Union Free School District, “Mutiny on the Bounty” and Gavin Pickford of R.J.O. Intermediate School, Kings Park Central School District, “Is This The Last Straw”; and six-graders Karly Coonan of Raynor Country Day School, “The Last Straw” and Pranav Vijayababu, Hauppauge Middle School, Hauppauge School District, “Save Our Seas.”

“Suffolk County, New York State, the country, and the world need scientists and engineers now and in the future. The students in this science fair are young, but they aren’t too young to have fun with investigative science and engineering processes,” said Scott Bronson, Brookhaven Lab’s manager for K–12 programs.

“Once again, the students who participated were exceptional. Their projects showed it. Congratulations to each of them. And, ‘Thank you,’ to every parent, teacher, mentor, and volunteer who helped them — and will continue to help them along the way.”

For more information, visit https://www.energy.gov/science/.

Photos courtesy of BNL

Jessica Liao, a junior at Ward Melville High School in East Setauket, garnered the top spot in the 2020 Model Bridge Building Contest, held virtually and broadcast online for the first time this year by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory. 

Students from 17 Nassau and Suffolk County high schools designed and constructed a total of 190 model bridges intended to be simplified versions of real-world bridges. In this contest, efficiency is calculated from the bridge’s weight and the weight the bridge can hold before breaking or bending more than one inch. The higher the efficiency, the better the design and construction.

Student competitors typically bring their bridges to the Lab to be tested. But for this year’s competition, to help maintain social distance during the developing coronavirus pandemic, engineers at Brookhaven ran the tests and broadcast them to the students virtually.

Liao beat out the competition by building a bridge that weighed 17.25 grams and supported 59.44 pounds. Her bridge had an efficiency of 1562.98, the number of times its own weight the bridge held before breaking or bending more than one inch.

Aidan Wallace, a junior from Walt Whitman High School placed second with a bridge that weighed 17.54 grams, held 51.01 pounds, and had an efficiency of 1319.14.

Third place went to junior Michael Coppi from Ward Melville High School. Coppi’s bridge weighed 9.02 grams, held 25.01 pounds, and had an efficiency of 1271.77.

Sophia Borovikova, a senior from Northport High School won the aesthetic award for the best-looking bridge. Her bridge took 10th place in the contest, weighing 16.17 grams and holding 33.29 pounds for an efficiency of 933.83.

The construction and testing of model bridges promotes the study and application of principles of physics and engineering and helps students develop “hands-on” skills, explained Ken White, manager of Brookhaven Lab’s Office of Educational Programs. Students get a flavor of what it is like to be engineers, designing structures to a set of specifications and then seeing the bridges they build perform their function.

“These same skills are put to the test for the Lab’s engineers on projects like the National Synchrotron Light Source II and the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, both world-class research tools that operate as DOE Office of Science user facilities for scientists from all across the world, and the upcoming Electron-Ion Collider,” said White. “Preparing the next generation of engineers to work on projects like these is important to the Lab and the Department of Energy.”

Brookhaven Lab’s Office of Educational Programs coordinated the Regional Model Bridge Building Contest. Now, the two top winners — Liao and Wallace — are eligible to enter the 2020 International Bridge Building Contest in May. For this year’s contest, contestants will mail their bridges to the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, where university faculty and engineers will run the breakage tests and post the results online.

Prior to COVID-19-related school closures on Long Island, Gillian Winters, a science teacher from Smithtown High School East, conducted a bridge competition in her classroom to help students prepare for the contest at Brookhaven. She also built a bridge of her own to compete among students.

“My favorite part is to see the creativity the kids can come up with because they’re all very different,” Winters said. “Some of them have a pretty straightforward way of doing things, and some of them want to put a new twist on things. I love to see how they develop, and by the end, they really have learned a little bit about how to follow the instructions and what a specification really means.”

Borovikova said she plans to pursue civil and environmental engineering or mechanical engineering after graduation. “I really enjoyed the creative process — trying to figure out all of the different parts that are going to come together to form the bridge,” she said. “Designing the bridge was actually a pretty quick process for me because I like to try to imagine concepts right off the top of my head. Then actually letting the bridge come to fruition was really interesting for me, because I saw my design come to life.”

Wallace said he spent many hours creating his bridge and making sure it would qualify. “From this contest, I have learned more about hands-on building and the engineering of bridges,” he said. “I was happy with my results, but of course would have liked to place first!”

The award ceremony for the competition is currently pending, but the Lab hopes to hold it before the end of the academic year, according to Susan Frank, the competition coordinator and educator at the Lab’s Science Learning Center. For more information, please visit www.science.energy.gov.

From left, Kerstin Kleese van Dam, Brand Development Manager at BNL Diana Murphy, and John Hill at the Practical Quantum Computing Conference (Q2B) in San Jose, CA, Dec. 2019. Photo courtesy of Kerstin Kleese van Dam

By Daniel Dunaief

Brookhaven National Laboratory is putting its considerable human and technical resources behind the global effort to combat the coronavirus.

John Hill, the director of the National Synchrotron Lightsource II, is leading a working group to coordinate the lab’s COVID-19 science and technology initiatives. He is also working on a team to coordinate COVID-19 research across all the Department of Energy labs.

“We are proud that the tools we built at BNL, which include the NSLS II, which took 10 years to build and cost about a billion dollars,” will contribute to the public health effort, Hill said. “We feel that science will solve this problem, and hopefully soon. It’s great that BNL is a part of that fight.”

In addition to using high-technology equipment like the NSLS II to study the atomic structure of the virus and any possible treatments or vaccines, BNL is also engaging a team led by Kerstin Kleese van Dam, who is the director of BNL’s Computational Science Initiative.

According to Hill, the combination of the physical experiments and the computing expertise will provide a feedback loop that informs the efforts with each team. Kleese van Dam’s team is using supercomputers to run simulated experiments, matching up the atomic structure of the viral proteins with any potential drugs or small molecules that might interfere with its self-copying and life-destroying efforts.

The computer simulations will enable researchers to narrow down the list of potential drug candidates to a more manageable number. Experimental scientists can then test the most likely  treatments the computer helped select.

Across the world, the scale of the science to which BNL is contributing is even larger than the Manhattan Project that led to the creation of the atomic bomb during World War II, said Hill.

In just three months since scientists in China produced the genetic sequence of the coronavirus, researchers around the world have produced over 15,000 research articles, some of which have been published in scientific journals, while researchers have self-published others to share their findings in real time.

Working with computer scientists from different fields at BNL, Kleese van Dam is helping researchers screen through the abundant current research on COVID-19. The number of papers is “accelerating at a rate no one can read,” Hill explained. 

Kleese van Dam and four of her scientists are setting up a natural language processing interface so scientists can type in what they want to find, such as a protein binding with a specific complex, and put it into a search engine. She is working on an initial service that she hopes to expand. Additionally, the computer science team is planning to start a project to look at epidemiological data to determine how various people might react to different treatment.

Kleese van Dam and her team are also working to build an archive in the United States that they hope will host at least the results of the Department of Energy funded projects in medical therapeutics. “[We are] convinced that this would provide a much better starting point for future outbreaks, as well as providing a near term clearing house of results,” she explained in an email.

As for the work at the synchrotron, Hill said that the high-energy x-rays can determine the specific atomic configuration of proteins in the virus.

The NSLS II, which was designed to study the structure of batteries, geology and plant cells, among other objects, can look at “small protein crystals better than anywhere else in the world.”

The virus relies on a docking mechanism that allows it to enter a cell and then insert its malevolent RNA to disrupt the cell’s normal function. Understanding how the pieces come together physically can allow researchers to look for small molecules or approved drugs that could interfere with the virus.

One of the many advantages of the synchrotron over protein crystallography is that the NSLS II doesn’t need as many copies of proteins to determine their atomic structure. Hill said protein crystallography needs samples that are about 100 to 200 microns in size, which is about the width of a human hair, which can take weeks to months to years to grow. This is a “bottleneck in the whole process” of solving protein structure, he said.

On the other hand, the NSLS II only requires samples of about a micron in size. This “greatly speeds up the process,” he added. Two different groups of researchers, from the pharmaceutical industry and from academia and national labs, are conducting experiments on the NSLS II.

Hill said he was receiving viral proteins scientists believe will bind with the virus from collaborators in the United Kingdom. The scientific process is as quick and collaborative as it’s ever been among researchers, he said. The proteins arrived recently.

That collaborative process would have “taken months to set up under normal circumstances,” Hill said. Instead, it only took a few days.

At the same time, BNL is constructing a cryo-electron microscope, which doesn’t have the same resolution as the NSLS II, but does not need crystals and can study individual proteins. Researchers need about 10,000 of them and can average the images together. The resolution is five to 10 times worse than x-rays.

BNL is accelerating the construction of the cryo EM and hope to have the first beam in mid-May. Commissioning will take some extra time, Hill said. The first structure of the coronavirus spike protein was determined by using an electron microscope.

For Hill and Kleese van Dam, who each have dedicated much of their time to these efforts, the opportunity to contribute to a project that could have implications for a public that is battling this disease is rewarding and offers reasons for optimism. 

“To be able to help at such a scale is indeed humbling and gratifying,” said Kleese van Dam. “Science is going to solve this problem,” added Hill. “That gives me comfort.”

Daniel Mazzone. Photo courtesy of BNL

By Daniel Dunaief

Like many people who hunch down when they step into cold air, many materials shrink when exposed to the frigid temperatures.

That, however, is not the case for samarium sulfide when it has impurities such as yttrium sprinkled throughout. Indeed, the material goes through negative thermal expansion, in which cold air causes it to expand.

Daniel Mazzone, a post-doctoral fellow in Brookhaven National Laboratory’s Condensed Matter Physics and Materials Science Department who is joining the Paul Scherrer Institute in May, wanted to know how this happened.

Working with synchrotrons on three different continents, at the National Synchrotron Lightsource II at BNL, the Soleil synchrotron in France and the SPring-8 synchrotron in Japan, Mazzone and a team of scientists explored the properties of this metal.

The work that led to an understanding of the properties that made the metal expand in cold temperatures could have applications in a range of industries. Some companies use materials that balance between expansion and contraction to prevent the lower temperatures from altering their configuration. 

Mazzone said the expansion properties can be fine tuned by altering the mixture of materials. With these results, he and his colleagues “bring a new material class to the focus of the community,” he wrote in a recent email.

So, what is happening with this samarium sulfide mixed with yttrium particles?

In a paper in the journal Physics Review Letters, Mazzone and his partners, including Ignace Jarrige, who is the group leader of the Soft Inelastic X-ray Scattering Beamline, described the way mobile conduction electrons screen the samarium ions, causing a fractional transfer of an electron into the outermost electronic samarium shell. Quantum mechanical rules govern the process.

Using the Pair Distribution Function beamline at NSLS-II, the researchers performed diffraction experiments. The scientists determined how the x-rays bounced off the samarium sample at different temperatures. The sample was contained in a liquid helium cooled crysotat.

“We track how the x-rays bounce off the sample to identify the locations of atoms and the distances between them,” Milinda Abeykoon, the lead scientist of the PDF beamline, said in a press release. “Our results show that, as the temperature drops, the atoms of this material move farther apart, causing the entire material to expand up to three percent in volume.”

In France and Japan, the researchers also used x-rays to explore what electrons were doing as temperatures changed.

“These ‘x-ray absorption spectroscopy’ experiments can track whether electrons are moving into or out of the outermost ‘shell’ of electrons around the samarium atoms,” Jarrige explained in a press release.

The valence electrons in samarium, which are the outermost electrons, are in a shell that is under half full. That means that they are more reactive than they would be if they the shell was full, as it is with noble gases.

The researchers observed that a fractional part of the electrons are transferred from the conduction band in the outermost samarium shell. This causes the samarium to expand, as the outermost shell needs to accommodate an extra electron. When this happens for the numerous ions in the system, this can have an important effect.

By working with Maxim Dzero, who is a theoretical physicist at Kent State University, the scientists were able to apply the Kondo effect, which was named after solid-state physicist Jun Kondo. Back in the 1960s, Kondo explained how magnetic impurities encourage electron scattering at low temperatures, which not only increases the volume of the materials, but can also increase their electrical resistance.

In the Kondo effect, electrons align their spins in the opposite direction of the larger magnetic articles to cancel its magnetism. For the samarium material, the outer shell moves around the atomic core, creating the magnetic moment of the samarium ion. 

“For some elements, because of the way the outer shell fills up, it is more energetically favorable for electrons to move out of the shell,” Jarrige explained in a press release. “But for a couple of these materials, the electrons can move in, which leads to expansion.”

A phone call among several of the collaborators led them to believe the process involved with the samarium was akin to the one that causes water to expand when it freezes. As scientists build on this understanding, they will likely need to create or search for similar but alternative materials to samarium sulfide, Mazzone said. 

Samarium sulfide is incredibly expensive. Materials scientist will need to find the right elements that can “do the same job,” he explained. “The next step is to find the materials that are cheaper and optimize it.”

Mazzone, who is currently living in his home country of Switzerland, is preparing for his next job, which is expected to start next month.

He and his wife Fabienne, who is an economist at the ski producer Stöckli, enjoyed living on Long Island during his two year post-doctoral research experience.

“Switzerland is landlocked and surrounded by mountains,” said Mazzone, who speaks German, French, English and some Italian. “Having a beach at the front door [when they lived on Long Island] was beautiful.”

Dedicated climbers, the Mazzones traveled to the Shawangunk and Adirondack mountains while they lived on Long Island to find an outlet for their passion for rock climbing.

As for his future work, Mazzone anticipates remaining in academia where he would like to continue his research and teach. He plans to conduct additional experiments on the Kondo effect. These materials also feature properties such as unconventional superconductivity and other quantum phases that may help with quantum computing.

By Daniel Dunaief

Two researchers from Brookhaven National Laboratory were stuck on a ship trapped in ice near the North Pole — and they couldn’t have been happier.

In fact, one of them, Matt Boyer, an Atmospheric Scientist at BNL, is returning to the German ship Polarstern for six of the next seven months. The Polarstern is part of a 20-nation effort that will gather information about the Arctic to understand climate change. The scientific collaboration, called MOSAiC (Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate), started in September and will involve collecting data for a full year.

The scientists are measuring aerosols, cloud particles, and other data through conditions that are among the most challenging on the planet. Researchers aboard the Polarstern regularly endure cold temperatures, fierce winds, minimal to no sunlight and the threat of polar bears unafraid of humans.

Janek Uin, an Associate Atmospheric Scientist at BNL, is working with instruments that measure properties of atmospheric aerosol particles such as their size, the concentration of particles per unit volume of air, how the particles are affected by water vapor and how much light the particles scatter, which affects the sunlight that reaches the Earth’s surface.

Arthur Sedlacek, an atmospheric chemist with the Environmental & Climate Sciences Department at BNL, is one of a host of scientists collecting data from the Polarstern. Indeed, Sedlacek traveled to Tromsø Norway when the ship departed, where he prepared to measure the accumulation of black carbon in the Arctic. 

Caused by burning fossil fuels, emissions from distant wildfires, among other things, black carbon can cause polar ice to melt. When there is sun, the black carbon prevents the reflection of the light, which further darkens the white surface, either through exposure of the underlying ground or previously deposited black carbon.

Sedlacek, who did not travel aboard the Polarstern, said scientists around the world are “itching to see the data” from this ambitious mission. The data collection is “so unique and so important that it will not only help us better understand the current (pristine) state of the cryosphere, but it will also [allow scientists] to better understand (and quantify) how the Arctic is responding to climate change.”

Uin, who is an instrument mentor for about 30 instruments worldwide, recalled how he went out for a fire drill. Following his designated path and waiting for the signal to return, Uin decided to snap some pictures of a frozen and uneven landscape that appeared blue during much of the day, when the faint rays of the sun barely made it over the horizon. Unable to maneuver the camera to his satisfaction, Uin took off his gloves. His exposed fingers became numb in the wind. After he put his gloves back on, it took about 10 minutes for the feeling to return to his hands.

Boyer, meanwhile, who spent more of his time working outside than Uin, helped set up the meteorological site about 1 kilometer away from the ship and is monitoring the size and concentration of organic and inorganic aerosol particles.

The size and concentration of the particles determines how they behave in atmospheric processes, Boyer explained. The size of the particle influences its light scattering ability, how long it stays in the atmosphere, the human health impact and its ability to form clouds, among other properties.

The process of working near the North Pole requires a high level of patience. A task that might take two hours in a lab, for example, might require as long as four days to complete in Arctic conditions.

Boyer described how the moisture from his own breath sometimes froze in his face. “I prefer not to wear goggles” because they fog up, he explained. When he exhaled, the water vapor in his breath caused his eyelids to freeze shut. “You have to constantly close your eyes and pull the ice off your eyelids.”

Boyer had to hold onto a piece of metal when it was well below 0 degrees Fahrenheit and windy. Placing the bolts, nuts and screws into a hole with a glove on is “almost impossible,” Boyer said, although once those items are in place, holding a wrench with gloves on is manageable

Each time people work outside, polar bear guards constantly watch the horizon to make sure the carnivorous creatures don’t approach scientists. While the ship is not a cruise vessel, it offers pleasant amenities, including a small pool, a sauna, an exercise room and nourishment Uin and Boyer, who were roommates aboard the Polarstern, appreciated.

“The food was excellent,” Uin said. “Working long hours in extreme conditions in close quarters, the food has to be good. If it’s bad, morale plummets.” The scientist has been on three ice breakers and the food has always been high quality. 

Uin appreciated the opportunity to take the journey and to conduct the scientific research. “I am reminded how lucky I am that people trust me to do this,” he said.

Uin enjoys the opportunity to look at the ice, which appears blue because of the low light. “People think it’s all white,” he said. “There’s a constant twilight and an all-encompassing blue.” He is excited to look at the information the instruments collect and is “certain that the data will help to bring new insights into the very complex processes governing Earth’s climate and help better predict future trends.”

Boyer, who plans to leave BNL this month to pursue his PhD at the University of Helsinki, said he appreciated the opportunity to be a part of a multi-national team. “I’m one of the luckier people on the planet,” Boyer said. “Not many people will see the Arctic and the Antarctic and I’ve seen both,” adding that there is a satisfaction at being involved with something that is “much larger than myself. I’m a part of a community that works together towards a common goal. It’s nice to be a part of an international team working with people from places and countries who put aside their differences.”

All photos from Janek Uin

Stock photo

*Update* This post has been amended to reflect new cases of coronavirus in Suffolk County as well as new info from town and county sources.

In the same week the World Health Organization called the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, Suffolk County recorded its first six positive tests for COVID-19.

The first four people to have the virus contracted it through community transmission, which means that none of them traveled to countries where infections are more prevalent. The patients include a Brookhaven Town man in his 20s who is in isolation at Stony Brook University Hospital, a Southold resident who is in her 20s and is under home isolation, a man in his 80s who is in isolation at St. Catherine’s Hospital and a man in his 40s who is in isolation Stony Brook Southampton Hospital. 

At the same time, eight people were under mandatory quarantine while the New York State Department of Health is monitoring 72 people under precautionary quarantine because of their travel abroad, according to officials from the Suffolk County Health Department.

Dr. Gregson Pigott, commissioner of the county Department of Health Services, said the patient is “getting better” and expected that he will “be fine.” 

Pigott said several area facilities have developed the ability to test for COVID-19, including LabCorp and Northwell Health Labs, which received state and federal approval to start manual testing for the virus. Northwell is seeking U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval to use semi-automated testing within the week, which could boost the number of tests to the hundreds per day and into the thousands in the near future, the health lab said.

Pigott said Suffolk County was “on top of” the virus “for now” but that the circumstances could change, which is why several facilities have taken steps to protect various populations.

Stony Brook University told students this week that it would transition to all online classes starting on March 23, according to a letter sent out to students. The online version of the classes will continue through the end of the spring semester. Stony Brook is one of several colleges throughout the country that is taking steps to protect students through online versions of their classes. Princeton University, Stanford University, Harvard College and the University of Washington, to name a few, are also teaching classes online. Hofstra University canceled classes this week as well.

On March 10, Stony Brook’s Staller Center canceled all events for March “out of an abundance of caution” due to the coronavirus, according to a release.

Meanwhile, the New York State Education Department and the State Department of Health issued updated guidance to school and community health officials, which includes requiring schools to close for 24 hours if a student or staff member attended school prior to being confirmed as a positive COVID-19 patient. Additionally, during that period the school is expected to disinfect the building or buildings where the person had contact prior to testing positive. The departments also urged schools to work with community feeding organizations to plan for distribution of food to students who rely on the two meals served at schools each day.

The local health department will notify schools if and when they are required to close because of the virus and when they can reopen. Schools are not expected to decide about closing or canceling events on their own.

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has canceled all public events, including lectures and on-site visits, through April 30.

Brookhaven National Laboratory, responding to guidance from the U.S. Department of Energy, has suspended all international business travel, with an exception for mission-essential international travel. Staff returning from China, Iran, South Korea and Italy are required to self-quarantine for 14 days. Staff will also have to self-quarantine if a household member traveled to those countries. All in-person visits of people from those countries are postponed.

Meanwhile, county Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. (D) suspended all contact visits with prisoners. Noncontact visits can still be scheduled in advance, while visiting hours will be 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. and will be limited to 30-minute sessions.

To protect the most vulnerable population, the U.S. State Department also made recommendations to senior facilities. Following those guidelines, Affinity Skilled Living in Oakdale started screening staff and visitors earlier this week, which includes taking their temperature. The facility also has restricted visiting hours.