On a mission for science

Samuel Bodman, a member of President Bush's Cabinet, visits Jefferson Lab to emphasize the importance of science education.

Newport News — Teacher Melissa White avoided science courses in college but got a job five years ago teaching physical science to eighth-graders in Hampton.

White struggled her first year, but she stuck with science thanks to a multi-year teacher development program offered in the summer by Jefferson Lab, a national nuclear physics laboratory in Newport News.

"Students always used to ask me questions, and I couldn't give them the answer because it wasn't in the textbook," White said. "Now I can give them the answer."

U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman visited the lab Wednesday as part of a weeklong effort to highlight President Bush's push to increase federal funding for math and science research and education.

Stories like White's highlight what teaching programs can accomplish at a time when a national panel has urged federal officials to boost support for scientific endeavors to ensure America's continued competitiveness in the global economy.

The lab, officially the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, employs about 650 people and brings scientists from around the world to Newport News.

Those scientists come here to use the accelerator - a nearly mile-long underground track where electron beams are spun at almost the speed of light and then hurled into detectors that let researchers see subatomic particles.

It was the first time in about seven years that the nation's top energy official had visited the lab, run by his department.

The visit illustrated the marked reversal of the lab's fortunes.

Last year, budget cuts forced the lab to delay research and prevented it from rehiring employees working on time-limited contracts that expired Jan. 31.

Now funding is restored, and $7 million is tagged to design an upgrade that would double the accelerator's power.

"The president is very committed," Bodman said. "The administration is very committed."

Bodman spoke privately with employees about Bush's scientific initiatives.

He spoke publicly with teachers, such as White.

He also fielded questions from students participating in the lab's science programs:

Some days he loves his job. Some days he doesn't.

He figures the president is his friend.

No, he wouldn't stick his hand into a vat of liquid nitrogen.

Bodman wondered whether his grandchildren - and by extension, the nation's youths - realize the careers available in scientific study. "I worry a lot about whether they will want to participate and seek out opportunities in engineering and science like I did," he said. "A lot of this is very fun."

White, who now teaches at Smithfield Middle School, agrees.

"When we can get excited about it," she said, "our students can get excited about it."