Education Referendum is Vital for Area's Future

By Swapan Chattopadhyay, Daily Press
September 29, 2002

What's the true value of Virginia's colleges and universities? On election day, the commonwealth's voters will answer that question directly. They'll give thumbs-up or thumbs-down on the bipartisan, $900 million bond referendum for higher education.

As a member of Virginia's science community and as an educator myself, I already know my own answer. I think the value of Virginia's colleges and universities is inestimable.

Sure, scientists like me are probably biased about it. After all, because research and education are the heart and soul of science, many of us spend a lifetime on campus. Even those of us who join industry - or national laboratories, as in my case - first spend a good part of our lives on campuses. We keep close professional ties there throughout our careers.

However, a bias doesn't necessarily make you wrong. So as an admirer of Virginia's universities and colleges, I'm grateful for this chance to describe the vital connections between Virginia's higher-education community and my own scientific organization in Newport News, the Accelerator Division at Jefferson Lab - the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, or "JLab" (jay-lab), as we call it.

I promise not to get too technical. And if my comments nudge anyone toward voting "yes" on Nov. 5, so be it!

For starters, without Virginia's universities and colleges, no Jefferson Lab would have been built in Virginia at all. No new, half-billion-dollar national laboratory for Hampton Roads. No $100 million annual federal funding. No JLab jobs for over 500 Hampton Roads citizens. No JLab attraction of high-tech talent and ideas to help boost the area's economy. No JLab spinoffs to revolutionize laser technology or equipment for diagnosing illnesses.

Here's how an initiative originated by Virginia's universities and colleges brought Jefferson Lab to Virginia. By 1980, well into the nuclear age, physicists had figured out three new, crucial things about the nucleus at the atom's core. First, the protons and neutrons that make up the nucleus are themselves made of still tinier bits of matter called quarks. Second, we couldn't really understand the nucleus until we understood it in terms of these quarks. Third, to achieve that knowledge, nuclear physicists would need a huge, specialized machine: a high-energy, continuous-electron-beam accelerator.

That's where twelve Virginia universities and colleges came in. Led by the University of Virginia and the College of William and Mary, they established SURA, the Southeastern Universities Research Association. The U.S. Department of Energy considered several prestigious institutions for building the research machine that nuclear physicists needed. Thanks to those Virginia schools, the energy department chose the proposal from unknown and untested SURA.

By 1987, after some far-sighted effort from Virginia civic and political leaders as well, especially in Newport News, construction began on the Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility, or CEBAF, as Jefferson Lab was called until 1996.

Maybe during a Jefferson Lab open-house tour you've visited the main result, the industrial-sized accelerator complex that takes up one-third of the site. Or maybe you've glimpsed the accelerator complex through the trees on Jefferson Avenue near Oyster Point.

Landing Jefferson Lab for Virginia was only the first of the vital connections with Virginia's higher-education community that have helped JLab flourish. Nowadays 59 institutions make up SURA, which operates JLab for the energy department. SURA's members range from the deep south's Louisiana State University to the northeast's MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Researchers from those universities — and from others across the country and around the world — visit JLab to conduct experiments.

Prominent among those researchers are many professors and graduate students from William and Mary, Old Dominion, Norfolk State and U.Va., as well as from private Hampton University. Using continuous beams of electrons, they probe deep within the atom's nucleus. House-sized electronics arrays detect and record what happens. State-of-the-art computer systems help sort the oceans of resulting data.

Over time, the experiments are yielding that quark-based understanding of the nucleus that I mentioned. For example, understanding is evolving about the basis of electric charge in subatomic particles.

What this really means is that Virginia professors and students — including many from public universities that would benefit from passage of the bond issue — are generating fundamental new knowledge about matter itself.

Still, a skeptic might reasonably ask, "OK, but what good is that knowledge? Is it really worth all that federal tax money? And why should I support the higher-education system that's so involved in the effort?"

The truth is, no one can predict how new scientific knowledge will eventually change the world through technology. To take just a few examples from the last century and a half, no one could predict that physics research would lead to radios, or lifesaving medical equipment like X-rays and MRIs, or the wealth of electronics underlying our entire economy, or the World Wide Web, invented at JLab's sister laboratory CERN in Geneva, Switzerland.

But in a way, we have learned to predict something just as important: if you link scientific research to higher education, you change the world through people. You do that by training and educating students, who then go on to change the world every bit as much as new technologies do. As William and Mary President Timothy J. Sullivan put it recently, "What we are really investing in is human potential and its benefits to the commonwealth."

You can see some of that human potential grow as you watch students play vital roles on any given JLab experiment team. They gain a deep, hands-on familiarity with world-class high technology - for example, the particle detectors that are being adapted for medical uses, or the software that's helping define the state of the data-handling art. Some go on to become nuclear physicists. Others take their expertise elsewhere in our high-tech economy.

My own Accelerator Division offers special opportunities for outstanding undergraduate and graduate students. Each student, guided by a university adviser and mentored by a JLab scientist or engineer, conducts original research and produces a bachelor's or master's thesis or a doctoral dissertation.

Just to give one example, such students might work with our superconducting microwave technology. That's what energizes not only our big accelerator, but also our high-power free-electron laser, with its world-record performance. It's the kind of technology that will probably also drive the world's next large accelerator — with JLab people involved, because JLab pioneered the technology. Right now JLab is engineering a superconducting accelerator for a national laboratory in Tennessee.

Students are also increasingly involved at the Applied Research Center built by the city of Newport News at JLab's north end. As Daily Press news stories have reported, the "ARC" gives Hampton Roads researchers and high-tech entrepreneurs an ideal place to collaborate professionally with JLab scientists and engineers.

Much of that collaborative mixing has to do with our free-electron laser and other work involving light. "Photon science," we call it, because light can be thought of as a stream of tiny weightless photons. To perform work requires energy. Because different kinds of light represent energy in special forms, light can perform new kinds of scientific work. You might say that photon science can enable us to do research that's quite illuminating!

Much of the mixing in the ARC is highly interdisciplinary. Increasingly, we physicists engage biology and medicine, for example — partly because lasers and other scientific sources of light have so many uses in those fields. Besides free-electron laser science, other laser work, and medical imaging, ARC research engages the science of plasmas. Plasmas are sometimes explained as a fourth state of matter: not solid, not liquid, not gas.

The growing interconnectedness of the sciences is good, of course, for Jefferson Lab and Hampton Roads. But our most basic business is science itself, and we never forget where science's heart and soul are. They're in higher education. I like to say that at JLab, an important part of our job is to incubate students to become versatile, successful contributors in an increasingly multidisciplinary world.

Nor is it universities only that are vital to JLab. Without our highly skilled community college graduates, JLab couldn't function. They design electronic components, operate and maintain high-tech equipment, and carry out important administrative tasks.

None of this means that here is where we stop. In the service of the university physics researchers who represent JLab's main purpose, we hope soon to double the JLab accelerator's energy and add a fourth experiment building.

And in the service of university interdisciplinary researchers, we're also upgrading the free-electron laser, and planning to expand our photon science in other ways as well.

So I guess maybe I really am biased toward higher education.

Passage of the Nov. 5 higher-ed bond issue would boost every single college and university in Hampton Roads — not just in science and engineering, but across the board. To me, that means not just education in general and science in particular, and not just the local economy, but the future itself.