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A Behind the Scenes Look into the Lawrence Berkeley Lab with Polite Stewart


by Jessica Gerwin, Drake HS

What makes Polite (pronounced “po-leet”) Stewart stand out from any other person working in the Advanced Light Source department at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab? The answer is that Polite is only nineteen years old. His remarkable story begins with a young boy who has a knack for learning.

Ever since an early age, Polite's parents could tell that he picked up new concepts at a much faster rate than other kids. After being enrolled in the Baton Rouge University at fourteen years old, Polite entered the Timbuktu program there which is designed to focus on studying advanced subjects of English and math. Polite excelled in his academic experience there and became one of the youngest graduates of the university’s 132 year history. His passion for physics can be expressed in his current work with the Advanced Light Source (ALS) at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab.

What is the Advanced Light Source?  “Think of it as one of the world’s most powerful microscopes. With such a tool, scientists and industry can study materials at the molecular level, such as improving the physical structure of pharmaceutical drugs to increase effectiveness, studying the degradation of materials in batteries to build energy storage devices that last longer, and identifying how the molecular structure of solar cells impedes energy conversion efficiency.” [1]

In the interview below, Polite talks about his work at the lab and provides valuable insights on how to strive reach your highest potential level of success.  His topic is highly specific so some here are some explanations of terms.

Terms:

  • Postbac - Post Baccalaureate (a college level degree)
  • ALS -  The Advanced Light Source is a specialized particle accelerator that generates bright beams of x rays for scientific research. [2]
  • How the ALS works - Electron bunches traveling nearly the speed of light, when forced into a circular path by magnets, emit bright ultraviolet and x-ray light that is directed down beam lines or tubes to different research labs. [2]
  • How Bright Is It? - The ALS produces light that is one billion times brighter than the sun. This tool offers research in materials science, biology, chemistry, physics, and the environmental sciences.  

The Berkeley Lawrence Lab


Interview:

1. What first sparked your interest in physics?
  • My interest in physics is related to kinetics (motion) Newtonian physics, and that interest was piqued because I knew it would be useful to know about force transmission in the martial arts. It also helped me gain a better understanding of mathematics, engineering, and chemistry via research and self-study; everything is connected. My true interest is bio-engineering. I plan to research neuro-muscular theory to help people improve and repair lost neuron connection.
2. What specific topic are you studying?   

  •       At the moment, I work with hard X-Ray Scattering, specifically Small-Angle(SAXS) and Wide-Angle(WAXS). X-ray scattering is an analysis technique that uses x-rays to determine the structural formation of an object. At my beam line, 7.3.3, we specialize in protein, block co-polymer, polymer, and semi-conductor based samples. Transmission SAXS/WAXS is used to view a sample's interior; whereas, Grazing Incidence(GISAXS/GIWAXS) is used to look at the surface structure of a sample.

X-Ray Scattering machine
Image Credits: http://www.saxswaxs.com


3. You are working with very sophisticated machines and ideas. Can you explain to high schoolers what the synchrotron does?
  •       A synchrotron is a huge particle accelerator that uses magnets to control electron bunches. The electron bunches are what make up the particle beam that each beam line end station (workplace) uses. The particle beam at our synchrotron is only a few micrometers wide and over 10x brighter than the sun.
4. Why is a synchrotron important?
  •      Well, that has a very long answer. The simplest answer would be to state that the aforementioned electron bunches are necessary to irradiate samples and therefore extract data...but, let's go deeper than that. First, a synchrotron is a just another version of the particle accelerator. So, we must determine why a particle accelerator is useful. Fundamentally, it is known that everything in this world is made up of atoms and molecules. There are smaller particles but we will only concern ourselves with the structures, for now, and not their components. Atoms and molecules are, of course, too small to see with the naked eye so, in essence, particle acceleration is our window into the world of the micro- and nano-structures.
  •       How does this work? The electron bunches are sped up to a very high constant speed and then the bunches are sent down each individual beam line's lead tunnel. The light is then rammed into your sample. When this occurs, the electrons in the beam will then collide with atomic and molecular structure of your sample. This will cause photons (light emission from the bouncing of electrons in particle space) to be emitted. This emission is then recorded and visualized as a scattering profile. This means that a synchrotron is very useful for allowing us to see the unseen. It is one of the many windows that helps us to understand the results of biology, chemistry, and engineering as a whole.

5. What do you hope to learn from this research?
  •       This research has only one real goal. It is to speed up the progress of science. At the synchrotron, there is something called beamtime. Beamtime is the experiment time given to each scientist who writes a proposal to use our beam line. This implies that many research groups frequent our beam line and the synchrotron itself. My job, and my employers', is to aid in the experimentation process. This increases (research) paper output, which in turn increases the output of scientific knowledge, and eventually improves consumer life (i.e. you).

6. Is this something that will help everyday people or businesses? Or both?
  •       The research that we do at the Advanced Light Source (ALS) is designed to help the commercial (consumer) and financial (business) sectors because helping the commercial automatically helps the financial.
7. How long do your projects take? 
  •       I have two jobs as a student researcher on the beam line: help the users (various research groups) at the beam line and write programs/make changes to enhance, and increase the efficiency of, the beam line. User assistance only lasts as long as the given research group's experiments. On the other hand, enhancement of the beam line will never stop.
8. What is a typical day in the lab like?
  •       There is no such thing as a typical day, but I would say days normally start off with determining whether users are present. If they are, the whole day is generally devoted to helping them with experiment setup and execution. If there are no users, then the morning might be spent cleaning the beam line and the remaining afternoon would be devoted to programming.
9. Where do you see yourself going?
  •       Currently, I see myself working for another year. Hopefully, it will be with Lawrence Berkeley Lab in the life sciences department. If not, I will apply to other labs and try to get a biological position. In the future, I would like to get a Masters in Bio-Engineering, possibly from Berkeley, and then go overseas to get my PH.D. and do my post-doc in Japan.
10. What do you recommend high school students do to get involved in research?
  •       This is a difficult question. The first step is to cultivate and maintain a self-driving spirit and will. From a different take, I'm saying that, first and foremost, the level to which you want to learn determines how much you learn. Effort and excellence are proportional; even you don't see the results immediately.
  •       Now that effort has been determined as the essential element, let us discuss the limiting factor: resources. Resources (lab equipment and opportunities) are hard to acquire and difficult to locate. However, there is a hack...and then there's a cheat code. I know they sound the same but they most certainly are not. The cheat code are summer programs. Look up as many as you can, find the ones that interest you, and apply with all the initiative you can possibly muster.
  •       Finally, the hack is the ability to network. How do you develop this hack? Talk to anyone and everyone who gives off a positive light. In school, on the street, in the store, at home, and especially at a place you would love to work at in the future. The key to your success is your voice and your ability to use it. When you see a person who could benefit you, address him/her, introduce yourself, and begin to discuss how you could help them and they can help you. Only practice can make you adept at communication, but once you can talk with poise and demonstrate mental rigor...there will be no limiting you or the passion which you hold in your heart.

    References:

   [1] The Collective Energy.  “Part 2: The Mad Scientists at the Department of Energy's National Laboratories”  Sept 23, 2013. <http://theenergycollective.com/mstepp/277291/pt-2-mad-scientists-department-energy-s-national-laboratories>.

   [2] "Advanced Light Source." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 17 July 2013. Web. 03 Nov. 2013. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advanced_Light_Source>.   

    The Advanced Light Source - A Tool for Solving the Mysteries of Materials." Advanced Light Source. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Nov. 2013. <http://www.lbl.gov/MicroWorlds/ALSTool/>. 

    Further Reading:

    Learn more about Polite by clicking on the links below.
    What is the Berkeley Lawrence Lab all about? To learn more about getting involved, click here.

   Click here to see an interactive map of the Lawrence Berkeley Lab!

   See the Advanced Light Source Quick Facts in a pdf here.
   
   See the flyer for Polite’s upcoming presentation here.


   - Jessica Gerwin
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