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Feature Story | Argonne National Laboratory

Scientists In Sync

Four of Argonne’s newest division directors look to the future.

Cristina Negri collects poplar samples to measure the pollutants sucked from the earth.

How will the next generation of scientists overcome challenges in physics and energy storage? How will artificial intelligence transform scientific inquiry?

When U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry visited Argonne in January, Nuclear Engineer Heather Connaway asked if he had any advice for early career scientists. Don’t be afraid to get outside of your comfort zone,” urged Secretary Perry. Feel free to collaborate, he advised.

That collaborative spirit thrives at Argonne as scientists and engineers — early career or not — in different areas team up to tackle scientific challenges and, ultimately, improve lives as well as our nation’s security and economy. That collaborative spirit also shines in four of Argonne’s newest division directors: Valerie Taylor (Mathematics and Computer Science), Cynthia Jenks (Chemical Sciences and Engineering), Cristina Negri (Environmental Science), and Kawtar Hafidi (Physics). 

When scientists work together, we really make an impact because the frontier of science shifts towards complex systems and complex competencies,” says Negri. We have the potential for new discoveries, new technology, new anything.”

These four renowned researchers and leaders eschew barriers and are changing the face of science across the laboratory. We recently sat down with them to discuss why collaboration is vital, the roles technology and young people play in shaping science, and the need for greater outreach to women and minorities.


ArgonneNOW: Argonne strives to solve the world’s greatest scientific challenges. What does that mean for your division and how might technology play a role?

Cristina Negri: The Environmental Science Division is charged with many tasks, one of which involves climate science. As part of our work in this area, we are also developing the science to better understand how major weather events impact energy systems. For this, we need to create more detailed mapping, including finer-resolution modeling of dramatic precipitation. 

Our goal is to focus on specific parts of the country — to better understand weather patterns in an area as small as a single county or metro area. This is an enormous challenge, but the more information we have, the more we can act on. We are currently working with Argonne’s Energy and Global Security Directorate to develop the comprehensive inputs we need for this purpose.

Valerie Taylor: The Mathematics and Computer Science Division provides the math and computing methods and tools needed to solve some of our nation’s most critical scientific problems. Because the data generated from simulations and instruments have increased significantly, there is growing
interest in using machine learning for science and engineering. Advances in machine learning, an application of artificial intelligence in which computers have the ability to learn without being programmed, and deep learning — an area within machine learning in which computers process data in such a way as to create patterns to aid in decision-making — will greatly benefit all areas of scientific study, such as understanding major weather events.

In an effort to satisfy the world’s computational needs and rise up to its greatest challenges, scientists are focusing on quantum computing and neuromorphic computing to meet specific needs. Quantum computing will use the power of atoms and molecules to perform specific memory and processing tasks far faster than traditional computers can. Neuromorphic computing gets its inspiration from the human brain, specifically its neural networks. Such computers would have the ability to infer, deduce, or make conclusions based on evidence and reasoning.

Cristina Negri: If we want to protect the environment or extract more resources from it, we must first understand it. We also must gain a better understanding of all of the functions that, say, a forest or other ecosystem can provide, before we determine what to do with it. For example, what is the benefit of the clean water or air that it yields? 

Until now, this has been pretty expensive to monitor. New computing opportunities and capabilities will take environmental research to a much higher level. Whether we are trying to learn more about climate, weather, biogeochemistry, ecology, or population shifts, all of these areas will greatly benefit from improvements in the way we compute and handle data. 

Cynthia Jenks: Right now, a major focus is on energy storage. How do we store energy for the grid? We are also working to create more advanced batteries that would enable electric vehicles to make that next jump. 

On the more fundamental side, I’ve been talking a lot about the science of complexity. Major advances in molecular design, characterization tools, and computing now allow us to tackle incredibly complex problems. In chemistry, there is now a large knowledge base about how to take one chemical and convert it to another. But in industrial processes, there are so many more variables to consider. There are multiple components that need to be converted simultaneously and impurities in the system that can hinder these efforts. So how do you handle this? That’s what we need to know. 

Kawtar Hafidi: There are still many puzzles being explored in nuclear physics: from understanding highly unstable nuclei that are critical to nucleosynthesis in stars and supernovae to describing how matter is formed from quarks when we can never see quarks individually — only bound together to form protons, neutrons, and other hadrons. The difficulty of answering these fundamental questions drives us to develop new tools to study these fascinating objects. While our mission is to better understand the nature of visible matter that makes up the universe, the techniques we develop to address these difficult questions have important applications outside of nuclear physics, giving us many opportunities to leave our comfort zone and think outside the nuclear physics box.

For example, our work building accelerators and understanding reactions in atomic nuclei led us to work with the Nuclear Engineering Division to develop improved production techniques for isotopes needed for medical imaging and treatment. Our interest in extremely rare nuclei led us to develop techniques for trapping and detecting single atoms of a specific isotope. After we perfected trapping for our nuclear physics measurements, we applied this highly sensitive and selective technique to trap and count other rare atoms. Just as carbon-14 allows us to date samples of organic matter, counting isotopes of krypton and argon allows us to date groundwater, glacial ice, and water from deep ocean currents, providing a powerful new tool for environmental studies and geosciences.

ArgonneNOW: What are the obstacles you might face moving forward with your research? 

Cristina Negri: In terms of the environment, there is a lot of information to gather and analyze, but consensus is a different story. Agreeing on what should be done is an enormous challenge — but we have an even greater challenge in making people understand why this research is important. We must have an active and vibrant research program in this area. That’s the only way we will fully understand the impact of all of our actions on the world we live in.

Kawtar Hafidi: It’s tempting for scientists and researchers to drill down in one particular area of study. It’s very hard to let go and start something new. That’s human nature. We have to find the balance between allowing someone to become an expert in one particular area and pushing them to think long term, to stay relevant.

ArgonneNOW: Valerie, could you expand on Argonne’s efforts in the area of quantum information science?

Valerie Taylor: The area of quantum information science includes quantum computing, quantum communications, and quantum sensing. The laboratory has many efforts in quantum information science, as interdisciplinary efforts are critical to advances in this area. 

I will focus on our efforts in quantum computing in the Mathematics and Computer Science Division. Currently, quantum computing is in its early stages with the availability of quantum processors with a small number — about 50 — of quantum bits, or qubits. We are engaged in work in the area of quantum algorithms, leveraging our depth and breadth in optimization, as well as work with parallel methods to extend the work with quantum simulators. Further, we are actively searching for a strategic hire in quantum computing. 

There’s also the Chicago Quantum Exchange, launched by the University of Chicago, in collaboration with Argonne and Fermi National Laboratories,
which aids academic, industrial, and governmental efforts in the science and engineering of quantum information. We are engaged in research with the Chicago Quantum Exchange in the area of quantum networks. It’s a very exciting time.

ArgonneNOW: What are some of Argonne’s top priorities? 

Cynthia Jenks: Among the top priorities is Argonne’s Materials and Chemistry Initiative. The Chemical Sciences and Engineering Division will play a large role in advancing this initiative. As part of this, for example, we’ll focus even more on catalysis (the study of how different materials — catalysts — can help accelerate chemical reactions). We will look at methods for designing catalysts that, for example, perform reactions in confined spaces. We can design catalysts in which, say, one part of the catalyst produces a particular chemical, and then another area takes that chemical and turns it into something else.

Fundamental science needs that are the foundation of new energy storage technologies continue to be a key focus for Argonne. Along with applied aspects of energy storage, battery recycling is another important focus. So, we have all of these batteries in the world. How can they be recycled? There are a few divisions working together on advancing this area.

ArgonneNOW: How does collaboration across departments benefit the laboratory?

Cristina Negri: That’s the great thing about working at Argonne. I may be doing my environmental research here and Valerie can be doing her computer work two floors down from me. Both are worthy ventures, but when you put them together, you get a lot more than the sum of the two parts. That’s our edge here at Argonne.

It’s pretty remarkable to have all of these different competencies, areas of expertise, resources, and facilities all in one place. 

Valerie Taylor: Not only does the laboratory attract world-class researchers, it also provides state-of-the-art equipment and facilities to advance the science — and then there’s the focus on excellence. Argonne has extraordinarily high standards for staff.  

ArgonneNOW: Can you talk about Argonne’s efforts to reach out to young people, women, and minorities? 

Cristina Negri: We all should strive to become role models to the young people who visit or work at the laboratory and we must remember that everything we do also provides an example to those looking to us for guidance and support. We have to be vigilant in creating and maintaining an atmosphere in which all people, including women and minorities, are encouraged to step up and meet the challenge of working at a place like Argonne. All of our scientists and researchers should feel emboldened, confident in meeting the laboratory’s goals and objectives.

Kawtar Hafidi: Young people are open to new ideas, which is great. I saw that this past year in the area of quantum information. The Department of Energy’s Office of Science encouraged many offices to start thinking about it, including the Office of Nuclear Physics. I asked around my division to gauge people’s interest and was met mostly with silence — except for two people who are among the younger folks on staff. Now we have a plan for how our department can add to this conversation. I was so glad to see their enthusiasm about building a bridge between these disciplines.

Valerie Taylor: We are constantly mindful of the need to help find and foster the next generation of scientists. We have a very welcoming environment for everyone, especially underrepresented groups like women and minorities. I recently attended a work-life balance workshop for women in high performance computing. I’m overjoyed at the notion that such a topic is being addressed — and that that panel was staffed by both men and women. That was great to see.