Leemann Officially Takes Over Peninsula's Jefferson Lab

By Vandana Sinha, The Virginian-Pilot
Nov. 17, 2001

NEWPORT NEWS — One year after being named interim director, Christoph W. Leemann officially takes the director's reins of the region's federal nuclear physics lab, a move announced at an employee meeting Friday morning.

Leemann climbs that last rung to a position he's worked toward for 15 years, since first coming to Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility to help design and build its electron accelerator, now considered one of the world's premier physics facilities.

"I've been doing the job for a year now," the 62-year-old said, his native Swiss accent holding strong. "Now it's for real."

Leemann has gone through his career trying to live up to his own expectations. They're high, coming from a man who helped develop a better way to smash protons into each other and then introduced a radical suggestion to upgrade Jefferson Lab's copper accelerator with superconducting components.

"That made it possible to conduct experiments in weeks that would have taken months, or possibly years, in other facilities at that time," said Jerry M. Conley, manager of the Department of Energy site office, which makes sure things run smoothly at Jefferson Lab.

"He's proven in the last 15 years he delivers on whatever challenge he's presented with," Conley said. "He's one of the few people responsible for bringing this facility on schedule, on budget, for smooth operation."

Thirty-seven years of leading accelerator research came about by a fluke decision when Leemann was an artsy teen. Watching the Russians send Sputnik to space and cause a ruckus in the 1950s, Leemann decided that his future was in science.

He spent most of his career at a federally funded physics lab in California. In 1985, he accepted a job at Jefferson Lab, turning down two others for the chance to build an accelerator from the underground up.

After supervising the smooth run of the new internationally recognized accelerator, he became head of the entire accelerator division. In April 2000, Leemann was chosen as the lab's first deputy director, tasked with running the day-to-day operations, before moving into the interim position a few months later, when the lab's director took a job at another lab.

This past year has tested him. Declining federal budgets left his projects on shaky ground, even as the scientist community gathered to write its five-year plan. But with a steady eye and calm outlook, Leemann held his ground and repeated his mantra: Add more years to the lab's lifetime so it can reach for great science.

Since November 2000, a committee of top physicists ranked Leemann's pet project, a doubling of the electron accelerator's capacity, as one of four long-term priorities for worldwide physics research.

Add to that a high-profile national venture, the largest for the Department of Energy's Office of Science. Jefferson Lab has been tapped to build superconducting radio-frequency cavities for a $1.4 billion world-class neutron generator that's recruited the expertise of six federal labs.

Then, most recently, Leemann was able to attract top-notch names to the lab's employee roster. In what Leemann describes as a make-or-break year, Jefferson Lab made it.

"We didn't stumble. We didn't miss a beat," he said. "This job is just thinking of everything that can go wrong."

Leemann knows he has challenging times ahead as federal resources wear even thinner from war. He expects the accelerator upgrade won't see construction for at least another year longer than expected.

He's already cut the number of hours for international scientists to run experiments through the accelerator, redirected scientists from personnel-heavy divisions to those that needed help and slashed administrative expenses.

"There's not going to be a radical change in the program," he said. "The highest priority will be to run the nuclear physics program and see that the upgrade gets built."