ACHIEVING a Ph.D. in a scientific or engineering field symbolizes the pinnacle of higher education, but it rarely marks the end of training. The sheer amount of technical knowledge required and the myriad challenges involved in conducting pioneering research in many fields demand advanced training beyond the doctoral degree. Such training is particularly valuable when it is acquired under the mentorship of a senior researcher and offers access to advanced computational and experimental facilities such as those at Lawrence Livermore.
For the Laboratory, historically bent on attracting the nation’s top talents in science and engineering, having a strong program that sponsors postdoctoral researchers, or “postdocs,” for two to three years has proven invaluable. What began as a small, informal effort conducted independently by various research directorates has grown substantially during the past decade, especially in the last few years. Livermore’s Postdoc Program now provides much greater coordination and oversight and operates with strong encouragement from Department of Energy and Lawrence Livermore senior managers.
In 2009, 112 new doctoral degree recipients, among the most promising scientific researchers in the nation and the world, were given the opportunity to pursue research at Livermore. Two years later, that number has grown to 177. An allied program, the Lawrence Postdoctoral Fellowship Program, founded in 1997, typically accepts two to four participants annually. (See the box below.)
“Postdocs bring to the Laboratory many of the most recent advances taking place in academic departments at top universities worldwide,” says bioscientist Kris Kulp, director of the Institutional Postdoc Program Board, which oversees the Livermore program. “These scientists and engineers are essential for maintaining the intellectual capabilities we need.” While working at the Laboratory, postdocs make significant contributions to basic and applied research of national interest, from investigating dense plasmas of ions to elucidating the mechanics of climate change. “Postdocs add to the breadth and depth of Livermore’s scientific capabilities,” Kulp says, “and they help inspire established research teams with their creativity and enthusiasm.”
Young Ph.D.s learn about the program from advertisements in scientific journals, the Laboratory’s career Web sites, scientific conferences, and faculty who are affiliated with Livermore scientists. Many applicants hear about the program while attending one of Livermore’s summer institutes for both undergraduate and graduate students.
Postdocs are selected for their scientific expertise, publishing record, and enthusiasm for working in the Laboratory’s highly collaborative environment. Their positions offer a competitive salary, fringe benefits, and travel opportunities. Successful candidates are hired for one or two years, depending on the program, and terms can be extended up to three years—an opportunity most postdocs choose to take. About one-third of the applicants selected are non-U.S. citizens.
During their tenure, postdocs conduct research and sharpen their scientific expertise in their chosen field. Every postdoc is assigned a mentor, a senior scientist or engineer who guides the research and helps the postdoc acquire the skills necessary to advance his or her career. These skills include developing research plans, writing proposals, publishing results, and presenting their findings at national meetings. Perhaps most importantly, these young researchers have an extended opportunity to establish collaborations both within and outside the Laboratory.
Chemist John Knezovich, director of Livermore’s University Relations Program, oversees collaborations between the Laboratory and the academic community to strengthen science teaching and help develop the future scientific and engineering workforce. Knezovich worked as a Laboratory postdoc in the early 1980s, one of only 12 at the time. More recently, he says, “We’ve built an organization around the postdocs and are paying attention to them as a group.”
Pipeline for Staff Positions
“Our goal is to provide an experience that prepares them well for any job they may have in the future, either at Livermore, another national lab, academia, or industry,” says Kulp. “If they don’t stay, we want them to maintain a relationship with the Laboratory.” Some who find positions in academia, for example, become collaborators in various research programs and recommend their graduate students apply for postdoc positions at Livermore.
Many postdocs receive support from a specific research project, typically sponsored by the Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) Program, which applies internal research and development funds to potentially high-payoff projects at the forefront of science. Positions may also be supported by external sources such as the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. “The Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration expect us to invest in the future of our workforce,” says Knezovich, “and LDRD funding is an excellent means to that end.”
In addition to funding provided by research projects, the Laboratory supports time for postdocs to devote to professional development and networking. Examples include conducting research that is more general in nature but not funded by a project; writing papers and proposals; and attending seminars, conferences, and workshops. (See the box below.)
PLS Home to Most Postdocs
In the last two years, the postdoc population in PLS has increased about 73 percent, from 70 to more than 120. Geochemist Annie Kersting, director of the Glenn T. Seaborg Institute, oversees the Postdoc Program for PLS. Kersting meets regularly with postdocs to make sure they are on track with their research goals as well as focused on their careers.
“Postdocs bring new scientific skills to the Laboratory and make many important scientific contributions to Livermore’s programs,” she says. The decision to offer a postdoc a staff position is determined by the postdoc’s skill set and achievements during the fellowship as well as the funding outlook for programs needing that person’s expertise. “Whether they stay on or not, we want them to maximize their time here and prepare for a career as an effective researcher.”
Geologist Jennifer Matzel converted to a staff position in 2010, following a three-year term as a postdoc. After obtaining a Ph.D. in geology and geochemistry from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Matzel accepted a postdoc position with the Berkeley Geochronology Center and the University of California at Berkeley. While there, she heard two Livermore chemists speak about nuclear forensics and decided to investigate postdoc opportunities at the Laboratory.
At Livermore, Matzel studied dust particles brought back by the Stardust space mission and samples collected from meteorites. For this research, she used a nanometer-scale secondary-ion mass spectrometer (NanoSIMS), an instrument designed to measure the elemental and isotopic concentrations of very small particles. Matzel examined the particles’ isotopic composition, looking in particular for “daughter” products of an isotope of aluminum with a half-life of about 700,000 years. Information obtained from the analysis is helping scientists better understand how the solar system formed billions of years ago.
As a staff member, Matzel is continuing her cosmochemistry research and working in the field of nuclear forensics. In particular, she is studying boron isotopes found in graphite obtained from nuclear reactors. “The isotopes tell us about the reactor’s history,” she says, adding that her current activities are especially multidisciplinary. “My work involves biology, nuclear forensics, cosmochemistry, and geochemistry, so I’m learning about many new fields.”
Her husband, Eric Matzel, is a seismologist at Livermore. She notes that the diverse scientific programs at Livermore make it an attractive research institution for two-career couples.
Engineering Builds Success
As with other directorates, Engineering advertises, recruits on major university campuses and at national conferences, and encourages applicants through its relationships with many professors. The efforts have paid off handsomely. A few years ago, Engineering employed only one to three postdoc engineers, but in 2011, 27 are on the job.
“Postdocs have a narrow and deep understanding of their fields,” Chinn says. “They bring us engineering technology out of universities that is state of the art.” LDRD funding pays about one-third of Engineering’s postdoc salaries. The remainder is a combination of institutional and programmatic funding.
Candidates for Engineering’s postdoc openings face a similar vetting process to that in other directorates, which includes traveling to Livermore for an interview and presenting a seminar on their graduate research. Occasionally, managers recognize that a strong candidate is better suited for a staff position than a postdoc fellowship.
Up to 70 percent of applicants offered postdoc positions agree to join Livermore. Chinn says the high percentage is a telling indicator of the Postdoc Program’s strength because many engineering candidates receive offers from other institutions. About 50 percent of the postdoc engineers eventually convert to staff positions at the conclusion of their third year. Those who leave usually go on to jobs at a university or in industry. Wherever the former postdocs land, their mentors strive to maintain relationships and encourage collaborations.
Computation Doubles Its Postdocs
While the LDRD Program supports many Computation postdocs, a significant number are funded through programs sponsored by the Office of Advanced Scientific Computing Research in the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. For example, the Scientific Discovery through Advanced Computing Program, known as SciDAC, is aimed at solving the computational challenges involved in developing future energy sources, studying global climate change, designing new materials, improving environmental cleanup methods, and advancing physics.
Third-year CASC postdoc Saad Khairallah, a computational physicist, graduated with a Ph.D. in condensed-matter physics from the University of Illinois. His thesis adviser was David Ceperley, a former Livermore researcher. Khairallah was accepted into the Postdoc Program after meeting his current mentor, Erik Draeger, at a scientific conference. Draeger, a computational physicist, had also been a postdoc before joining the Livermore staff.
Khairallah is involved in three research efforts. First, he is helping develop new algorithms for path-integral Monte Carlo calculations to simulate the behavior of hydrogen from first principles. Results from this work will have important applications to National Ignition Facility experiments, astrophysics research, and simulations of the physical processes that occur during a nuclear weapon detonation.
“Although hydrogen is the simplest element in nature, it is nevertheless challenging to fully predict its properties,” says Khairallah. “Achieving this capability would influence many areas of research because hydrogen makes up roughly 74 percent of the elemental mass of the universe. If I were not at Livermore, I could not have done such computationally intensive work.”
Khairallah is also part of a large team effort that is led by Livermore physicist Frank Graziani and includes collaborators from other national laboratories. The project involves large-scale molecular-dynamics simulations of high-energy-density plasmas. Khairallah notes that his experience as a Livermore postdoc has been good. “People here value postdocs and listen to them,” he says.
Finally, he is exploring a computational technique called nudged elastic band that is designed to show at the atomic level the path a physical system takes as it transitions to a final state after undergoing, for example, a chemical reaction. “We are asked to think about new algorithms to take advantage of petascale and exascale computing,” says Khairallah, “and I believe the nudged elastic-band technique is a great candidate for the new generation of machines.”
Future Scientific Leaders
Livermore managers overseeing the Postdoc Program expect the program to continue to thrive and grow, as scientific fields cross traditional boundaries. “Postdocs do great research,” says Kersting. “They are a talented bunch of up-and-coming scientists, and we’re very happy to have them here.”
Key Words: Institutional Postdoc Program Board, Lawrence Postdoctoral Fellowship Program, Postdoc Program, postdoctoral research, University Relations Program.
For further information contact Kris Kulp (925) 422-6351 (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
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