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Department of Energy

JoAnne Hewett leads her first staff meeting as the new lab director at Brookhaven National Laboratory Tuesday, Aug. 8. File photo from BNL

By Daniel Dunaief

JoAnne Hewett hit the ground running when she arrived at Brookhaven National Laboratory.

She had no choice.

On her first day, Hewett, who is the first woman to lead the Department of Energy lab in its 76-year history, had to decide how to handle a technical problem at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, a machine that collides heavy beams of ions traveling around a 2.4-mile track.

Hewett, who is a theoretical physicist and had worked as associate lab director for fundamental physics and chief research at SLAC at Stanford University, was “able to grasp everything very quickly,” said Haiyan Gao, associate lab director for Nuclear and Particle Physics at BNL.

BNL decided to end its run of experiments on Aug. 4, earlier than the original plan for the end of September. It took some time to determine the root cause of the problem, which, fortunately, turned out to be a singular event and not a failure of the system.

Gao found it “quite refreshing in the sense that [Hewett] was very interested in the experimental, technical part” of the decision and called it “the right call.”

After arriving at BNL in August, Hewett has impressed many of the staff at BNL and is developing plans for the lab that extend into the next decade and beyond.

TBR News Media is pleased to name Hewett, who is a leader, an inspirational role model and a “people person,” as a 2023 Person of the Year.

In an interview, Hewett described an active first few days on the job.

“There’s nothing like a good initiation,” Hewett said. “Because I do have a collider and accelerator background, it was an easy decision to make.”

RHIC is planning to restart in March, which is about a month behind the normal schedule. Hewett expects the ion collider to get a full run for fiscal year 2024.

‘A breath of fresh air’

Having a new leader at the lab who does things differently “gets noticed,” said John Hill, the deputy director for science and technology. “She’s a breath of fresh air.”

Indeed, one of Hewett’s priorities has been to meet with all the technicians at the lab. She schedules group interactions where she talks with about 10 people at a time.

In addition to listening to the perspective of other BNL staff, Hewett wants “people to be enthusiastic here,” said Luisella Lari, project manager for the Electron-Ion Collider and senior scientist at BNL. “She takes time to explain the vision.”

Hewett’s approach, which includes a focus on the work and on the people who make the science possible, “makes me feel sure she is on our side” as an advocate, Lari added.

The new BNL lab director appreciates the pride people take in their work and in the effort to make contributions to everything from basic science to applied research that has the potential to contribute to new technology and to provide solutions for various challenges.

“People love their contribution to the big science mission,” said Hewett. “No matter what their role is, they understand that their contribution is important. We can’t get science out the door without them.”

Hewett wasn’t surprised to hear suggestions for ways to improve the lives of people at BNL. At the top of many people’s lists was reopening the cafeteria, which has been closed since the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re working very hard to get that open,” said Hewett.

Scientific goals

Top administrators at BNL appreciate Hewett’s long-range focus on improving the science and enhancing the equipment that makes discoveries possible.

Home to the National Synchrotron Lightsource II, which cost about $1 billion to make and was completed in 2015, BNL is focused on opportunities to upgrade a facility that can look at the inner workings of batteries while they are working or explore the interplay between the structure and function of important enzymes.

One of Hewett’s first questions to Hill was “what do you think about an upgrade,” he recalled. Hill said when it was first built, the NSLS-II was the brightest in the world, and now one or two other synchrotrons are brighter. She wanted to upgrade it to “keep its competitive edge.”

Hewett explained that the NSLS-II has the capacity for 60 beamlines. BNL has built 32 and is either constructing or planning another 12 to 15, which leaves room to plan and build 15 additional beamlines.

“Finishing that out is important,” said Hewett.

At the same time, BNL will be holding science workshops to determine which of the accelerator physics options makes sense. Hewett is also focused on enhancing the lab’s computing power.

“All science is data science,” she said. “We work so hard to create the data, we have to make sure we record and process it. If you don’t do that, you might as well not have run the facility.”

BNL just signed a funding request for a series of planned upgrades.

Hill is developing a year-long computational strategy, which includes a focus on the needs for the facility for the next 10 years.

One of the biggest appeals of coming to BNL for Hewett and for other scientists around the country and the world is the Electron-Ion Collider.

BNL won a competition to build the EIC on Long Island, with the help of Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator in Virginia. By colliding electrons and protons, the EIC will reveal how the subunits of protons and neutrons in the nucleus — the quarks and gluons — come together to help generate mass in visible matter.

Hewett is “heavily involved in the EIC, making sure we can deliver on that,” said Hill.

Recently, the Department of Energy passed a critical design landmark, which provides a green light to make long lead procurement items. Specifically, BNL received the authority to spend $100 million on items for construction of the collider that will take years to procure.

This, Hewett explained, is the approval before a funding baseline and schedule for the project.

“These take so long to order,” she said. “It’s not like going into a Target and picking something off the shelf. It takes a long time to keep the schedule on track.”

Hewett said she had no doubt the EIC team would pass this milestone.

She described the procurement project group as a rock star team and she had no doubt that they were going to get it.

BNL won’t get the official approval to spend money until January.

An appreciated first

Choosing Hewett to serve in the top role at BNL has inspired some of her fellow scientists and could serve as encouragement to other underrepresented people in scientific fields.

Her experience makes her “the best person for the job,” said Lari. “This is what I’d put before thinking she’s a woman.”

Lari said she is “extremely proud to be a part of her team because [Hewett] is a really competent scientist, person, and the fact that she’s a woman is a plus.”

Having a female lab director helps with recruitment, added Hill.

In dealing with some human resource issues, Hewett asked questions that reflected some of the challenges she faced, Hill said. “That was eye opening to me and will stick with me,” he added.

Personal inspiration

On the personal side, Hewett, who is a Star Trek fan and makes a quick lunch meal of yogurt and berries in her office on the fly, shared some of her personal struggles and decisions.

In a BNL video, she explained that she is a breast cancer survivor who dealt with the dreaded disease 16 years earlier.

“My main message is to increase awareness and the importance of screenings,” said Hewett. “If one more person gets screened because of the video, then that’s a success.”

Gao applauded Hewett’s message, even as she wasn’t sure she or others would be comfortable sharing personal health issues.

As for her move from California, Hewett, who is an only child, brought her 93-year old father Bob across the country with her.

Her father had moved with the family three times when Hewett was two, seven and 14, which created some symmetry for the latest travels.

The senior Hewett was prepared to travel to Long Island to be with his daughter, whom he calls his “best buddy.”

A dedicated daughter and lab director, Hewett comes to work energized by the achievements and warmth of the staff.

“I knew, of course, about the science before I came,” she said. “What I didn’t know was how wonderful all the people are. Everyone is extremely dedicated to the mission in their role and what they do. It’s like family.”

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.”

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.