First Person -- George Neil

George Neil, head of the Free-Electron Laser Program at Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility has been named associate director of the program.

Born
April 11, 1948 in Springfield, Mo.

1972-1977
Received Ph. D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wis.

1979-1990
Worked as a staff scientist, FEL program manager at TRW Defense and Space Systems Group in Redondo Beach, Ca.

1990-Present
Works as the Linac Department manager, principal Scientist, associate director at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News.

“I was a dangerous kid growing up. I was born in Springfield but grew up in Norfolk. I attended Granby High. I did all kinds of things that were incredibly dangerous. I would fly kites into power transformers that were owned by VEPCO, now known as Dominion Power. One time I set my mother’s vacuum on fire trying to make a jet engine. Almost everything I did as a kid scared my parents.

“My curiosity came from my mother. She was always fixing things. When the washing machine would break down, she would take it apart and figure out how to fix it. I started fixing things at a young age by tinkering with radios, TVs and electric circuits. Through it all, I somehow managed to make it through with both eyes. I grew up in the time of Sputnik and men walking on the moon. Everyone wanted to be part of these wonderful science opportunities opening up. I wanted to be part of it as well. When I entered high school science came naturally for me. Attending the University of Virginia allowed me to continue to develop and specialize in technology. I’m just thrilled that my career has developed in such a way that I could do just that.

“I’m heading up a program that is aimed at applying the technology we develop at the lab and using it to understand material properties, biological systems and advanced basic science research. A typical day for me as a division manger involves spending time worrying about budgets, schedules, meetings and contractual obligations, and obtaining funding for our research. One of the exciting things about my job is that I get to work on a number of projects. We may work on a project anywhere from three to five years. It evolves from doing simple problems to learning more about complex issues. Taking a fundamental idea and making it successful in the marketplace takes a long time. You have to be very patient.

“Right now we are working on a number of projects. One thing we developed over the last year with help from a group at Harvard is a treatment for adult acne. Adults get acne because the fat glands in the skin remain active after puberty whereas in other people these glands turn off. This causes them to get infections. What we have done is to use the light output from our laser to develop a treatment where you can kill fat generating glands underneath the skin without harming the skin above it. We use a laser light with a specific wavelength of light that gets absorbed in these fat cells. It destroys these cells and eliminates excess productions of fat glands. It no longer harbors infections that lead to acne. We tested it in successfully in our laboratories. And the people at Harvard had a successful clinical trial on humans. It is getting ready to head into its second clinical trial.

“We are also developing a new micro machining station that will allow us to fabricate satellites the size of a hockey puck. Instead of having these huge satellites, we will build something that you could hold in your hand. Despite its small size, it will still have the capabilities of a large satellite. It will even have rocket thrusters. It will also cost less to build because of its small size. Instead of spending hundreds or even millions of dollars on large satellites, we could build them for a few hundred thousand dollars.

“Smaller satellites have another advantage. Imagine you’re an astronaut sitting in your space shuttle and you think you just lost a tile from your wing. Instead of doing a space walk, which takes a lot of time, you could use the small satellites to look under the wing. In the future it may even have the ability to make repairs. We are working with a company called Aerospace Corp. in California on the project. They have actually flown three of them in orbit already. The results have been very successful. At least when it falls down to earth, it will burn up unlike the satellite we had to shoot down.

“The funding for science has been dropping each year. It puts a lot of pressure on science institutions to try to do more with less. It’s very disappointing and it’s hurting our country. This affects the future of science and has a long term impact on our technology. Computer chips, cell phones, HDTVs come about because of studies that are performed using basic science. Places like Europe, Japan and China are investing more than we are in technology. We are starting to lose ground. Skilled scientists and college professional are starting to go overseas because of their programs and of the opportunities available to them. We are working with the Department of Energy to help Congress and the American people understand why funding for science is important."