Jefferson Lab, ODU team up for center

Michael Schwartz
Inside Business, October 6-12, 2008

It pays to have a world renowned subatomic particle accelerator in your backyard.

Old Dominion University, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy's Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, better known as Jefferson Lab in Newport News, announced last week the creation of the Center for Accelerator Science, an academic entity that puts ODU in the same company as institutions the likes of Cornell, Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The center, approved by the university Board of Visitors in September, officially came into existence Oct. 1.

The collaboration between ODU and Jefferson Lab is a natural one and is a relationship that has been building for some time.

Hampton Roads has long attracted accelerator scientists as a place of employment thanks to the presence of Jefferson Lab. The region has not, however, been a place where students of the field come for their post-secondary education. The center could change that.

"We have been discussing with ODU for some time it would be really good to have something like this in this area associated with Jefferson Lab," said Andrew Hutton, Jefferson Lab's associate director of accelerators. "There are very few places in the country," Hutton said, where people can obtain the education necessary to work at an accelerator science lab.

Discussions of the center actually began during the tenure of ODU’s most recent president, Roseann Runte. Her departure this summer slightly delayed the deal, Hutton said, but proved only to be a temporary obstacle.

ODU will have Jefferson Lab personnel teaching on campus and will have access to Jefferson Lab's equipment, subatomic and nuclear physics technology worth billions of dollars.

"We're hoping this would give the center a cachet it couldn't possibly afford on its own for a long while," Hutton said.

Because of Jefferson Lab's international reputation, ODU will also have the chance to be mentioned in circles that previously were largely out of reach.

"We can start to push our friends toward ODU and make them known in the community," Hutton said of the small and tight-knit accelerator community.

Just days into its existence, the center has found a home, but not yet a leader.

The center will occupy an old ODU nuclear physics lab, Hutton said.

The facility has a basement and the plan is to someday build a small accelerator there. But that may take some time.

"All things are money when it comes down to it," Hutton said.

The next big step on the agenda is finding a director to lead the center. Just as Jefferson Lab was forced to do in its recent search for a director, the center will have to set out on an international hunt for a qualified candidate to lead such a group.

"The hope is we would find somebody that would be internationally recognized," Hutton said.

The motivation to create the center was also one based on the need for workforce development. The workforce for scientists and engineers with expertise in accelerator physics is not exactly busting at the seams with newcomers, particularly coming out of American universities.

The realization that the capabilities made possible by particle accelerators is the way of the future, has brought increased demand for scientists in the field.

"Recently people understand this is the technology to be in," Hutton said. "All of a sudden, it's an area which is booming."

The center may also help put Hampton Roads on the map as a place where future accelerator scientists can come to earn their degree and find a job.

Hutton said the concern about America and Virginia falling behind the rest of the world in training its citizens in math and science is apparent if you walk around Jefferson Lab. In fact, all you have to do is hear Hutton speak.

"If you listen to my accent, you'll hear I am one of very many people here that are not from Virginia," said Hutton, who speaks in a British accent. "That's the whole idea of creating this kind of center."

Perhaps in the future, the center's next director will be a Virginian.

As for the center's funding, Jefferson Lab will help there too. In addition to providing equipment and funding for graduate students, it has agreed to pay half of the director's salary.

The hope is that the collaboration between a federal lab and a university will help bring in research dollars from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and other funding organizations interested in such science.

And if research dollars start flowing in, Hutton said Jefferson Lab hopes the center will be able to stand on its own in two or three years.