Sunday, November 15, 2009

Meeting with SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory Director

On November 12, 2009 I met with SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory Director Persis Drell. Director Drell’s father is a Stanford professor (now emeritus) and she grew up on the Stanford campus. She grew up in what is now called the Griffin Drell house located behind Sigma Nu. Director Drell’s parents moved out of the house four years ago when construction for the new Munger Graduate Residence (MGR) began. The house was originally located on the MGR site (at the corner of Campus Drive and Alvarado Row) and therefore was moved to its current location behind Sigma Nu to make room for the MGR. It now houses the Stanford Law Review.

Director Drell attended Wellesley College as an undergraduate and majored in math and physics. She then went to Berkeley and earned a PhD in physics focusing on atomic physics. She later switched her focus to particle physics. She was a post-doc at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories and was an assistant professor for fourteen years at Cornell. Seven years ago Director Drell came to SLAC as an associate director and managed the particle facility and particle astrophysics research program. She then was promoted to deputy director and became director approximately two years ago. Director Drell misses teaching and doing research which she unfortunately does not have time for in her current position. This is different from the position of associate director, which was fun and close to the science. In addition, at Cornell she did significant teaching, which she enjoyed immensely.

SLAC is a Department of Energy funded and Stanford operated lab that does basic research exploring the structure and dynamics of matter and topics such as how matter is put together and what it is doing. SLAC works on scales from universe sized down to single atoms moving around in chemical processes and single particles. SLAC is currently undergoing a significant change in its scientific mission and the way the facility operates which has not been an easy process. It is switching from a focus on using the accelerators to do particle physics to now making x-rays. SLAC used to identify with particle physics but now is identifying with photon science.

SLAC recently turned on the world’s first x-ray free electron laser. This laser features ultra bright and short pulses that produce stop action pictures of atoms and chemical processes in real-time. Up until now, the strobe and flash speed was not fast enough so only blurry pictures were produced. The pulses with the new x-ray laser are a few femto seconds long, which is the time scale on which these particles move and reactions take place. The project cost $420M. It was turned on, on April 10, 2009 and it just worked and has continued to work without any problems. It uses 1KM of the old linear accelerator and 1KM of a new beam line. Teams from around the world of 10-20 people visit SLAC to use the laser for 4-5 days at a time. Each year a couple hundred scientists are able to use the laser.

Another project SLAC was recently involved with is the Fermi-Gamma Ray Space Telescope. Fermi has two parts, the Large Area Telescope (LAT) and the Gamma-ray Burst Monitor. The LAT was integrated and assembled at SLAC and the Primary Investigator was Professor Peter Michelson. Fermi was launched on June 11, 2008 and now sits in low earth orbit producing spectacular data that is processed back at the SLAC Instrument Science Operation Center (ISOC).

In terms of the University, SLAC is sort of like one of the seven schools. SLAC has approximately 1,400 employees and fifty tenure track faculty. Director Drell is analogous to a school Dean. Many of the SLAC faculty hold joint appointments with one of the other seven schools. SLAC also has approximately 100 to 120 graduate students.

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