June 10, 2022
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Delivering Exceptional Promise

Shelby Conn

An Update on Early and Mid-Career Recognition Award Recipients

Lawrence Livermore’s Early and Mid-Career Recognition (EMCR) Program acknowledges the exceptional scientific, technical, and engineering contributions of individuals 4 to 16 years into their professional careers who have made significant mission-critical contributions at the Laboratory. Since the inception of the EMCR Program in 2015, every year about a dozen distinguished Livermore scientists and engineers receive a take-home cash award and one year of institutional funding for up to 20 percent of their time to pursue technical activities in support of the Laboratory’s mission in their areas of interest. Candidates must be nominated and then evaluated by a committee empaneled by the deputy director for science and technology.

Funding provided by EMCR helps jumpstart research projects and new technologies and puts the recipients on a fast track to achieve their career objectives. Upon receipt of the award, recipients submit proposals for their chosen projects. “When the EMCR Program was established, the original goal was to recognize our early and mid-career staff for their past successes, as well as prepare and motivate them to take on leadership roles. If you look at awardees over the past seven years and the contributions they have made, everyone would agree that the goal of this award continues to be fulfilled,” says EMCR chairperson Eric Schwegler.

Félicie Albert

Félicie Albert portrait

EMCR 2015 recipient and scientist Félicie Albert joined the Laboratory in 2008 as a postdoctoral researcher and has performed experiments at premier light-source facilities around the world. Albert used her EMCR funding for beamtime at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory using the world-class Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) free-electron laser. “Experimentation can provide new diagnostic techniques and help scientists explore different states of matter existing only in the center of stars, giant planets, and exploding nuclear weapons. High-energy-density science and the Laboratory’s mission to maintain the nation’s nuclear weapons through its Stockpile Stewardship Program rely on this research,” says Albert. LCLS delivers 120 x-ray pulses per second, with each pulse length as short as one quadrillionth of a second. Such pulses drive a material to extreme temperatures and change its atomic structure. Albert explains, “LCLS is a one-of-a-kind laser, and its ability to bring matter to extreme temperatures and create states otherwise impossible to produce is extraordinary—there are few lasers like it in the world.”

With her beamtime, Albert performed experiments on aluminum, silicon oxide, and iron samples, heating them with the laser to alter their atomic structure, and then probing them with betatron radiation. The probe was produced by a separate, optical laser next to the sample, which irradiated helium gas to create a plasma, stripping electrons from the helium atoms and generating an electron-plasma wave that the trapped electrons could “surf on” and accelerate to relativistic energies. These electrons then rapidly wiggled back and forth about their propagation axis, producing the betatron x-ray radiation needed to probe the sample and capture the matter’s reaction to the LCLS irradiation with ultrafast precision. Albert’s combination of LCLS’s x-ray and optical laser beams, together with betatron radiation, was unprecedented.

As deputy director for Livermore’s High Energy Density Science Center and the Jupiter Laser Facility, Albert continues to explore novel techniques and expand her research to include x-ray sources with photon energies necessary for the radiography of dense materials.

Crystal Jaing

Crystal Jaing portrait

After receiving an EMCR in 2016, Crystal Jaing enrolled in the post-master’s certificate program in genomics and DNA sequencing at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. The program provides scientists, like Jaing, who have an extensive background in biochemistry and molecular and cell biology, with additional bioinformatics skills so they can delve into more complex experimental designs and data analysis. “When I received the award, one of my colleagues was enrolled in the program at Johns Hopkins, and his studies in bioinformatics during that time aligned with our ongoing projects. I knew this real-world application would equip me with the skills to oversee broader efforts in large-scale DNA sequencing and data analysis at the Laboratory,” says Jaing.

Since 2016, Jaing has taken on additional leadership roles for bioinformatics-related projects. As principal investigator for testing and evaluation of the Functional Genomic and Computational Assessment of Threats project, an initiative within the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, she utilized bioinformatics to assess the threat of a DNA fragment and its potential use as a bioterrorism agent. Jaing’s recent research with the Laboratory’s Bioscience and Biotechnology Division has helped predict and detect future pathogen outbreaks, whether natural or malicious, and her studies at Johns Hopkins have proven vital during the COVID-19 pandemic for public health and biosecurity, and especially for accurate, fast diagnostics.

Over the last year, Jaing’s team has examined the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), analyzing clinical nasal swabs on the Lawrence Livermore Microbial Detection Array, a technology developed by her team for early viral and bacterial detection to determine which co-infecting viral and bacterial pathogens are present in samples, indicating a potentially higher morbidity. By identifying COVID-19 co-infections, appropriate antibiotics can be administered in addition to COVID-19 treatment protocols. On the other hand, if a COVID-19 patient is infected with another virus such as the flu, this data can help track the spread of SARS-CoV-2 during flu seasons. Understanding the overlap of SARS-CoV-2 with other co-infections reveals disease severity and impact, supports clinical decisions, and helps doctors triage patient management. Says Jaing, “The additional education makes all of this research possible, enables more complex biological data analysis, grows the Laboratory’s biodetection capabilities, and allows me to take on additional leadership roles.”

Todd Gamblin

Todd Gamblin portrait

Scientific simulations that support the Laboratory’s mission run on supercomputers using hundreds of external software libraries, also called packages or dependencies. Various high-performance computing (HPC) applications need different versions or configurations of the same dependencies to work correctly on high-performance computer systems, so selecting the right dependency becomes essential to application performance. Traditionally, users, developers, and HPC support staff spend hours building codes and libraries by hand to obtain the ideal dependency configuration.

In 2013, computer scientist Todd Gamblin created the open-source package manager Spack (supercomputer package manager) to address this problem and speed up time to delivery. Spack automates the scientific software installation process by managing complex dependency networks—choosing from different versions, compilers, and other configuration options to ensure compatibility across an application’s built-in dependencies. The tool caught on at the Laboratory as well as externally, and the Spack team at Livermore has grown to include six computer scientists and software developers to support demand for the software.

Receiving the EMCR award in 2017 gave Gamblin the opportunity to expand Spack’s features and improve its methods for automatically configuring a set of libraries. He optimized the way Spack solves dependency conflicts among every potential combination, allowing the Spack ecosystem to handle even more complex package configurations. In 2019, Spack won an R&D 100 award in the Software/Services category and was an R&D Special Recognition medalist in the Market Disruptor–Services category. Today, Spack manages more than 5,900 software packages, and its open-source community includes hundreds of users and contributors globally.

Gamblin says, “The EMCR project laid the groundwork for Spack’s new answer-set programming solver in 2020. My research continues to help the Spack and HPC community solve complex package problems.” With Spack’s new logic solver, Laboratory scientists and physicists can install their software faster than ever with minimal downtime. Gamblin’s latest initiative is the Binary Understanding and Integration Logic for Dependencies project, funded by the Laboratory Directed Research and Development Program, which aims to develop a machine-verifiable model of package compatibility within Spack for automated software integration on existing and future HPC systems.

Andrew Pascall and Marcus Worsley

Andrew Pascall portrait

Chemical engineers Andrew Pascall and Marcus Worsley combined their 2019 EMCR to create next-generation ceramic–metal (cermet) composite armor, which combines the high hardness of ceramic, increasing the armor’s resistance to penetration, with the toughness of metal, increasing its ductility. Pascall and Worsley’s cermet armor includes an internal metal lattice for reinforcement, like rebar inside of concrete. Together, the cermet materials and lattice design could increase performance, operational supportability, and durability of armor used for military personnel and vehicles—making significant progress in the field of cermet armor.

Pascall and Worsley worked with Laboratory postdoctoral researchers Amy Wat and Jesus Rivera utilizing a software program called “nTopology” to design the lattice and adjust its parameters—such as the shape of the lattice (cubic lattice, octet truss, and helicoidal for example) and strut thickness. The lattice is then printed in wax using a 3D printer and embedded into an ultrahard, lightweight ceramic called boron carbide, referred to as a “green body.” When heated, the wax melts away from the green body, leaving empty channels in the shape of the lattice. Finally, the green body is placed on a piece of aluminum, which is then heated and wicks into the empty lattice channels, bonding with the porous ceramic, in a process called molten metal infiltration.

Marcus Worsley portrait

The two awardees are characterizing the mechanical properties of the different lattice designs for fracture toughness and tensile strength. Once they determine the ideal lattice combination, they will begin creating larger armor parts that can be tested to assess its strength. Pascall says, “The EMCR award, along with Marcus’s heat treatment expertise and my ability to design the initial armor pieces, made this project possible.” Worsley adds, “Our complementary skill sets allow us to cover different angles of problems and solutions.”

Hui Chen

Internationally acclaimed physicist and 2017 EMCR recipient Hui Chen used her award to design a course to train new Laboratory employees on the use and application of high-energy-density (HED) science technology at Livermore’s National Ignition Facility and Jupiter Laser Facility. Chen explains, “Many individuals, myself included, come to Livermore with a background in other areas of physics, and HED experiments at the Laboratory’s laser facilities require specialized training.” HED experiments performed at these facilities study and replicate matter and energy under extreme conditions and temperatures typically found at the center of giant planets and stars. With the course, Chen hoped to make the learning curve easier for new Laboratory employees who have been researching other areas of physics.

Hui Chen portrait

The course, “Introduction to HED Laser–Plasma Experiments and Diagnostics,” consists of six one-hour-long lectures with topics that include principles of laser-driven HED experiments and techniques, diagnostic principles, and current HED experiments using lasers. Chen says, “The short course had an attendance of around 160 participants and turned out to be a huge success.” She adds, “With the support of the High Energy Density Science Center’s director, Frank Graziani; professor Farhat Beg at University of California San Diego (UCSD); and Joe Kilkenny of General Atomics, I expanded the introductory course into a full 20-lecture series on HED diagnostics for the center and UCSD, which has had two sessions with an attendance of about 300 attendees each time.”

In addition to HED instruction, Chen has led many experimental studies with national and international collaborators and made important contributions to several areas of plasma physics, most notably in the field of relativistic positron generation via intense laser–matter interactions, novel sensors for gated x-ray imaging, and x-ray spectroscopy of highly charged ions.

Dan Haylett

Dan Haylett portrait

Livermore physicist Dan Haylett developed a course for new Laboratory employees in the Weapons and Complex Integration (WCI) Principal Directorate with his 2017 EMCR funding. The course, Modern Primary Design, offers a deep dive into physics as well as advancing the Laboratory’s ongoing nuclear weapon modernization efforts. This research supports Livermore’s Stockpile Stewardship Program of maintaining the nuclear stockpile without relying on testing.

The concepts behind the course stem from Livermore’s legacy of weapons design and the incorporation of advanced simulation and computing tools that bring these concepts to life. More specifically, Haylett teaches design fundamentals for the “primary,” or trigger in the fission bomb component of a thermonuclear weapon and studies the factors that affect its design. Haylett hopes to share his expertise in primary science, design, and construction with WCI designers. Haylett explains, “My course offers an array of alternative designs, some of which incorporate safer materials, the latest technologies, and modern security methods. Many of my former participants say the class has helped them advance their programmatic work. The Laboratory’s continued mission fulfillment relies on a thorough transfer of knowledge to the next generation of designers.”

Carlos Valdez

Carlos Valdez portrait

Synthetic chemist at the Laboratory’s Forensic Science Center (FSC) Carlos Valdez and his team used his 2019 EMCR award to overcome the limitations of gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC–MS) in detecting synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. The ability to accurately detect synthetic opioids could help the Laboratory, other government agencies, and law enforcement combat these lethal substances by controlling their production and developing medical countermeasures or antidotes.

GC–MS can only detect highly volatile substances, meaning substances easily vaporized by gas and heat. Due to the low volatility of fentanyls in their native salt form, these substances are virtually undetectable by GC–MS. To address this problem, Valdez’s team developed a novel method utilizing a compound, trichloroethoxycarbonyl chloride, which reacts with the fentanyl, generating two new molecules detectable by GC–MS.

With this information, scientists can now confirm the presence of a given fentanyl in urine or blood collected from an overdose victim. In addition, this technology can be utilized in the field during an illegal narcotics seizure to alert law enforcement or emergency personnel when a fentanyl is present. “The FSC staff assists government agencies like the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency with this critical technology so they can detect opioids in real-life cases. EMCR awards catalyze potential scientific and technical advancements that otherwise may never see the light,” says Valdez. Valdez continues to make advancements in fentanyl research and in the development of antidotes against nerve agents as the principal investigator for three projects funded by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

The EMCR Program provides Laboratory leadership with the opportunity to learn about exceptional scientists and engineers making an impact in support of the Laboratory’s mission and who exhibit leadership potential. Says Schwegler, “It’s been a real pleasure to be involved in this award program, which is an essential investment in the Laboratory’s future.”

—Shelby Conn

Key Words: Aluminum, answer-set programming, beamtime, betatron x-ray radiation, boron carbide, ceramic–metal (cermet) armor, DNA sequencing, Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), electrons, Early and Mid-Career Recognition (EMCR), fentanyl, free-electron laser, gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC–MS), genomics, gren body, high-energy-density (HED), high-performance computing (HPC), Jupiter Laser Facility, Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS), National Ignition Facility (NIF), nucleus, package manager, pathogens, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, software, solver, Spack, synthetic opioids.

For further information contact Terry Land (925) 423-5836 (land1 [at] llnl.gov) or Eric Schwegler (925) 424-3098 (schwegler1 [at] llnl.gov).