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National Laboratories Confront National Challenges

By Joy Metcalf

Throughout the United States, all 17 Department of Energy (DOE) National Laboratories use innovative science to confront and overcome many challenges the nation faces. Whether it is housing some of the world’s fastest supercomputers or developing capsules to capture carbon dioxide to combat climate change, National Labs play a critical role. As in many other venues where change is made, STPF alumni fellows are fanned out across many of these labs.

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Benn Tannenbaum stpf
Benn Tannenbaum | Matt Howard, Argonne National Laboratory

“The National Labs are part of the three-legged research enterprise in the United States – the other two being industry and academia. Our role is to steward large, expensive capabilities that neither academia nor industry can afford and quickly assemble multidisciplinary teams to address national-level problems,” stated physicist Benn Tannenbaum, 2002–03 Congressional Fellow sponsored by the American Physical Society. He cited the Fukushima reactor accident and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill as examples of issues the labs address. “We also provide the best possible research product to the government at a reasonable cost."

Tannenbaum is government relations manager at Sandia National Laboratories – most recently in the news for discovering the mechanism for Rift Valley fever virus infection. He plays an instrumental role in ensuring that Congress and the nation understand the vitality of the National Labs. 

Four years ago, he wrote a white paper suggesting the creation of National Lab Days, a five-part educational outreach effort on Capitol Hill. Additional National Lab Days—such as the one most recently held at the University of Delaware featuring Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz—have grown out of the original events. “While I do not claim sole credit,” he said, “I did help with the groundwork that led to these successful events.”

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Branden Brough, Ashley White, and Melissa Summers stpf
Branden Brough, Ashley White, and Melissa Summers are alumni at Berkeley Labs. | Meg Holm

Ashley White, 2010-11 Congressional Fellow sponsored by the Materials Research Society and The Optical Society and 2011–13 Executive Branch Fellow at the National Science Foundation, is director of communications at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Advanced Light Source, a synchrotron which is an extremely powerful source of X-rays. A main goal is to underscore the importance of National Labs and the tools they offer scientists (or “users”), often for free.

“We serve as a centralized facility that scientists from many different fields can use to do cutting-edge research. My job is to make sure we’re getting the word out about the more than 900 publications our staff and users produce each year,” stated White.

Recently, she has been assisting Berkeley Lab in a national prioritization process for DOE-funded accelerators. “If our light source is successful in eventually receiving funding for an upgrade, it would mean a significant improvement in our scientific capabilities—and we’d be the leading soft x-ray light source in the world.”

Employing more than 3,200 scientists, it’s not surprising there are other STPF alumni on staff. White enjoys meeting regularly with a close-knit group of alumni who support each other by sharing “insights, frustrations, and tried-and-true strategies.”  Among other alumni at Berkeley labs is Branden Brough, 2007-08 Executive Branch Fellow at the National Institutes of Health, and Melissa Summers, 2007–09 Executive Branch Fellow at the National Science Foundation.

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Katy Christiansen stpf
Katy uses the knowledge and experience she gained during her fellowship to educate staff about how federal research programs are built.

One of those fellows is plant molecular biologist Katy Christiansen, 2012–14 Executive Branch Fellow at the Department of Energy, who builds long-term research programs to produce innovations in biology, some of which transition to the private sector.

Christiansen has been managing a visioning effort that involves nine national labs for a synthetic biology foundry. Although they are still seeking DOE funding, Christiansen is proud that the labs have joined together to create a “collaborative program that will make biological engineering more efficient and cost-effective for the production of renewable fuels and chemicals.”

“If there’s an area the National Labs could improve,” said research scientist Mary D. Zalesny, 2001-02 Executive Branch Fellow at the U.S. Agency for International Development, “it is in recognizing the human side of national challenges and including the acceptance and appropriate application of technological solutions. People are very creative in finding ways to undermine technology and policy when they do not understand or accept it.”

To address this issue, Zalesny works at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to apply behavioral and social science theory to a variety of issues including national security, to better understand them and the recommendations to address them. Recently, she has been developing a model of intent of non-state actors to acquire and use chemical, biological weapons.

As in other industries and issue areas, STPF alumni are proud of the work they do and the missions that drive their organizations. Read stories about alumni in federal government and others enhancing science communication.

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Science & Technology Policy Fellowships