X-ray Scientist to Head SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

No SLACer. X-ray physicist Chi-Chang Kao will head SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, California.


With the appointment of an x-ray scientist as director, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, California, has completed, in a sense, a profound change of mission from a dedicated particle physics lab to a multipurpose laboratory with an emphasis on x-ray studies. Effective 1 November, SLAC's own Chi-Chang Kao will take the helm at the lab, which is managed by Stanford University and owned by the Department of Energy (DOE). He succeeds Persis Drell, a particle physicist who has served as director since December 2007 and who guided the lab through its metamorphosis.

Kao told ScienceInsider that, in addition to sustaining SLAC's current programs, he hopes to build up specific areas of energy-related basic research, including energy storage, solar technology, and catalysis. He concedes, however, that growth may be challenging in the current federal budget environment. "We have a very aggressive growth agenda that needs the budget [from DOE] to support it," he says. SLAC has an annual budget of $324 million and a staff of roughly 1700.

Just a few years ago, SLAC was one of the world's premier dedicated particle physics labs. Using the lab's 3-kilometer, straight-shot linear accelerator, or linac, and other accelerators, SLAC physicists bagged three Nobel prizes. But SLAC turned off its last particle smasher in 2008, while accelerator physicists developed a plan to use the linac to power the world's first x-ray laser. The Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) turned on in April 2009, and myriad researchers now flock to that "light source" to conduct experiments in materials science, condensed matter physics, chemistry, structural biology, and other fields.

SLAC and Stanford conducted a world-wide search for a new director, but in the end Kao was "a very easy choice," says William Madia, vice president for SLAC at Stanford. "It was his vision," Madia says. "He fundamentally, viscerally, and organically understands light sources. We sit there with the world's first x-ray laser and he has a vision for what we can do with this magnificent facility."

Kao, 53, moved to SLAC in 2010 to serve as associate lab director for the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL), another facility that uses a circular particle accelerator to generate x-rays. From 1988 to 2010, he worked at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, where from 2006 he served as chair of the department for the National Synchrotron Light Source, an x-ray source similar to SSRL.

Kao has a sterling reputation as a researcher, his colleagues say. Early in his career, Kao and his supervisor at Brookhaven, Jerome Hastings, developed a technique called "resonant scattering," in which the x-rays not only scatter off the atoms in a material but energetically "excite" the electrons in them at the same time. The technique allows researchers to, for example, use x-rays to study magnetism at the atomic scale. "Chi-Chang took that idea and not only ran with it, he sprinted with it," says Peter Siddons, an x-ray scientist at Brookhaven. "They invented a whole new field."

Kao inherits a lab that is, by all accounts, in good shape. The LCLS is up and running and researchers are already working on an expansion of the facility. At the same time, SLAC particle physicists have been tacking into so-called particle astrophysics, and SLAC is now the lead lab in developing a 3 gigapixel camera for the proposed Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, a $650 million 8.4-meter telescope to be sited at Cerro Pàchon, Chile, that would aim to catalog billion galaxies and make an unprecedented movie of the heavens.

Still, some researchers say that SLAC faces challenges. Linda Young, an atomic and molecular physicist at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois and an LCLS user, notes that SLAC does not yet have robust materials science and chemistry programs to support the work being done at the LCLS. "I would say that they still have a ways to go" in completing the lab's transition, Young says. "I think Chi-Chang is the right person to effect that change."

Kao says expanding SLAC's energy-related basic research will help further the transition, but that the lab must also maintain its expertise in particle physics and, in particular, accelerator physics. "Because of this [expertise], every 6 months we have a new capability [in x-ray science]," he says. "And the shrinking high-energy physics R&D budget [in DOE] may put us at risk of losing some talent. So that's one of my major concerns."

As for his management style, Kao is friendly, open, and thoughtful, his colleagues say. "It was clear from the get-go that he was leadership material," says Siddons, who worked with Kao at Brookhaven for 22 years.

*Correction 2:10 p.m., 25 October: The name of Chi-Chang Kao's original supervisor at Brookhaven has been corrected. The earlier version incorrectly identified him as Julius Hastings, who also worked at the lab and is Jerome Hastings's father.