An Enduring Partnership:
LLE and SUNY Geneseo’s Nuclear and Plasma Diagnostics Development Laboratory

March, 2015

Research scientists at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics (LLE) and physicists, chemists, and computer scientists at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Geneseo have enjoyed a dynamic and enduring partnership for close to 20 years, culminating in the formation of the Nuclear and Plasma Diagnostics Development Laboratory on the Geneseo Campus. Staffed by six faculty members and more than a dozen undergraduate students, the Laboratory engages in research projects on a part-time basis throughout the academic year and full-time during the summer months. The projects typically span one to three years so that the faculty and students can have a minimum of one summer’s full-time effort on each project. These projects directly support the Inertial Confinement Fusion (ICF), High-Energy-Density Physics, and National Ignition Campaign communities, which perform research at LLE on OMEGA, OMEGA EP, and the Multi-Terawatt Laser Systems, and the National Ignition Facility Laser System at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL). As such, the partnership between Geneseo and LLE makes it possible for undergraduate students to participate in significant research and collaborate with scientists at world-class ICF facilities. While the work at Geneseo is a boon to the scientific community, the crux of its program is preparing students to continue toward graduate studies and research. “The undergraduate-to-graduate-to-professional pipeline is the real story here,” says Dr. Stephen Padalino. His former students echo that sentiment. “[The faculty at Geneseo’s] goal is to equip students to further their fields,” confirms Danae Polsin, second-year physics Ph.D. student at the University of Rochester and SUNY Geneseo graduate.

Dr. Stephen Padalino with LLE researchers that are Geneseo Alumni
Dr. Stephen Padalino has been instrumental in overseeing and garnering support for the Geneseo Nuclear and Plasma Diagnostics group

Dr. Padalino, Geneseo’s Distinguished Teaching Professor Of Physics has been instrumental in overseeing and garnering support for the Geneseo Nuclear and Plasma Diagnostics group, which has received in excess of five million dollars for this effort. These funds have been used to purchase scientific instruments, pay for travel, attend national conferences, visit national laboratories such as LLNL in California, pay student research assistant salaries, and support faculty during the summer months. In addition to these funds he and his collaborators at Geneseo obtained more than a million dollars in state funding to upgrade the accelerator facility.

While the work being done by the undergraduates at Geneseo is more auxiliary than the research performed at LLE, “the projects [at the undergraduate level] get us really excited to be a small part of a larger whole,” says Polsin. “The environment that I was in as an undergrad was focused on research,” says Mike Krieger, Geneseo alumnus and Experimental Operations Engineer for OMEGA EP.

The faculty at Geneseo, understanding and anticipating students’ prospective lives, makes sure they understand the rigor and difficulty of attaining a Ph.D. and of a life of research. By acquainting students early with the realities of academia, only those with certain determination remain in the program. This creates a unique environment composed of dedicated students and professors.

The laboratory exposure enjoyed by Geneseo students is highly sought after both by graduate studies programs and by potential employers, including LLE. “My experience in the summers is the reason I got this job,” says Joe Katz, Senior Laboratory Engineer at LLE and Geneseo alumnus, referring to his three years of lab experience with the Nuclear and Plasma Diagnostics Development Lab.

Polsin, too, found her work at Geneseo valuable in the application process for her Ph.D., remarking, “When you apply, they look for research experiments, lab experience. It’s almost a necessity to get in.” The proficiency and understanding made attainable as a result of this unique institutional relationship inform graduate students who are immediately ready to work as peers with scientists around the lab. She added, “[LLE] is one of the only places this is happening.” Graduate students are “working with actual scientists trying to advance the field.”

Advised by LLE Senior Scientist Tom Boehly, Polsin has focused on the physics of shock waves in ICF targets, but says the overall lab experience, as well as the exposure and immersion in the science community, has provided a strong foundation for her continuing engagement. She notes, “What’s unique about LLE is that there are all different types of physics going on.” She adds that it “was great to learn in the context of nuclear physics [at Geneseo].” Katz agreed, stating, “The academic atmosphere prepares students to deal with increasingly difficult problems that arise in the world of research.

SUNY Geneseo Physics Department at the First Omega Laser Facility Users Group Workshop,
April 2009

The exposure of students to national physics conferences goes hand in hand with lab experience. Presenting their research at these conferences offers the students access to the leading scientists in their field, preparing them for careers working with those same scientists. Katz comments about his experiences at multiple national physics conferences, “My first conference was extremely intimidating; I was around world-renowned scientists.” He adds, however, “If I didn’t have the connections, [being hired at LLE] would never have happened.” He continues, of the conferences, “to get your work into a presentable format and finish a thought—that’s a valuable thing.”

LLE’s funding support has created a viable and proven path from undergraduate work at Geneseo into graduate studies and the realm of research. Polsin remarked of this natural progression, “We meet people in the field and have already made connections with the scientists and researchers we will work with.”

The collaboration has also created an environment in which all students can equally engage with the world of academic research. “Being a woman in this field is a rarity and being given the opportunity to do relevant research gave me … the push I needed to have the confidence to get involved. I am grateful for that,” says Polsin.

The physics students from Geneseo who decide to forego graduate studies can also capably work as laboratory engineers at LLE and elsewhere. The skill, familiarity, and insight gained during their undergraduate years allow them to actively support and facilitate groundbreaking research at LLE. Says Krieger, “I love being around the research, and I love to enable the scientists to do this work.”

“[At LLE], we do fundamental physics experiments to expand the knowledge of fields from plasma physics to astronomy. About a month ago, I looked at the abstracts from some of the conferences we had attended,” says Krieger. “After seven months on the job at LLE, I personally recognize about half of the named researchers.” The model collaboration between Geneseo and LLE continues to engender students to enter advanced scientific research while enhancing the capacity of both institutions to broaden the scope of global scientific understanding.

LLE Laboratory Engineer and four Geneseo students working on the 3-axis gamma-gamma coincidence detection system, which was designed, developed, tested, and built as a joint research project between LLE and Geneseo