Theory to Practice – Dr. Parney Albright

The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is the pride and often controversy of the city of Livermore. This laboratory is a federally funded research and development center, with the mission of “strengthening the United States’ security through development and application of world-class science and technology…”¹. Las Positas College has been providing science and engineering seminars to students and more in conjunction with the Lawrence Livermore National Lab. You might remember our article on the “Artificial Retina Project” – (link here). This lab has been the source of cutting edge science, and the U.S government assigns some of its most innovative and secretive projects at this lab.

Dr. Parney Albright

 

 

 

 

 

 

The speaker today was none other than the director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Dr. Parney Albright. Dr. Albright started at a community college, moving on to George Washington University to earn a degree in physics. He pursued his masters and doctorate at the University of Maryland in the same subject area. Please read the rest of his impressive portfolio, including his interests prior to LLNL here.

Running a national lab

 

 

 

 

It must be a daunting task to run such a high profile national lab. Dr. Albright agrees, but shares that the lab has a clear scope and mission and his career is to ensure that happens. As we saw, the LLNL’s main mission is national security. Dr. Albright was quick to note that the world “nuclear” is not mentioned in their mission, which some assume is the only purpose of the lab. The LLNL takes a multi-disciplinary approach to national security, investing money and time into energy, science education, engineering, and more. Whats clear is the lab is all about making the nation “safe”.

How exactly do they  make the nation safe?

Dr. Albright explains that responding to the needs of the nation is the main approach to keeping it safe. Developing an intimate relationship with the national security community is key for the LLNL. “What can we give them?”, is one of the questions Dr. Albright asks his lab in response to the needs of the nation. Anticipating the future of technology, and defense helps the lab answer the question of what materials are needed to produce working and powerful tools. Dr. Albright has his team think ahead of the need, using a 160 million dollar/ year budget for internal development to produce items for future needs of the nation. He mentioned that after October of 2001, when the anthrax scare surfaced, the national government was very interested in defense against this agent. The LLNL was already working on bio defense well before 2001, giving an example of it’s forward thinking attitude for national defense.

“We do science for the sponsors missions” – i.e National security.

The innovative culture

 

 

 

 

 

The LLNL is a place of immense innovation, no matter how you feel on the ethics of the things being done here. Dr. Albright describes the lab as a place where “when we push the button, the lights come on”. This is in reference to how the LLNL works compared to other labs. Some national labs might be concerned with research, or the academic side of the sciences. LLNL is focused on making a tangible difference, and not just doing science for sciences sake (although this is not a bad thing). In comparison to private companies, Dr. Albright made it clear that his job, and that of his team is not for profit, and is to be completely objective. The LLNL does not answer to stockholders, but to the needs of the nation and national interest (what does this say about the nature of this lab?).

This lab is committed to multi-disciplinary teams, consisting of backgrounds such as physics, bio science, engineering, political science, history, law, etc. The building its self is small compared to other laboratories in the nation, and hosts a rich environment. Diversity is abound at the lab, and solving problems with each other (such as on Facebook spinoff, LabBook) is the central focus. Dr. Albright mentioned the total budget of the LLNL is 1.6 billion, to which 60 percent is nuclear weapons, and 40 percent is not. Dr. Albright was forward in telling us that it’s no secret the LLNL is focused in contract with the government on developing nuclear capabilities (weapons). This aspect of the lab of course, is most controversial with many people in the nation. Dr. Albright emphasized that engineers are the largest discipline at the lab, because of their focus on making science “work” in everyday situations.

Facilities at the LLNL?

One of the most famous objects at the lab is called the National Ignition Facility, or NIF. This is the worlds largest laser, designed to conduct experiments demonstrating capabilities close to what happens with a nuclear weapon. The lab uses this instrument to measure temperature, density, and pressure related to nuclear weapons and their use, to give them a better understanding of how these weapons works, and to avoid testing them underground to get the same data. This object can also help understand stars, and gas giant planets. Another interesting feature Dr. Albright mentioned, is the work on attaining a clean, unlimited source of energy. This happens when more energy is produced then is being put into the laser.

The worlds fastest computer named Sequoia, is also housed at the LLNL. This computer provides the opportunity to do the work of 6.7 billion humans in an hours time (link). Dr. Albright explained that the computer is currently being used to construct complex 3D models of the earth, paying close attention to detail, which could let the lab know when a part of the world is conducting an underground nuclear test, something very important to the national interest of the U.S. The most advance Cyber security in the world is housed at the LLNL.Climate change models are tested and confirmed right or wrong at the LLNL. The LLNL is the “arbiters of climate models”. The Sequoia computer provides good opportunities on the front of energy and the environment.

The LLNL is a pioneer in terms of the bio sciences. Dr. Albright mentioned that in the 1950’s, the lab was testing the effects of radiation in biological tissue, such as humans. This led to the so called DNA revolution, which Dr. Albright convincingly claimed “we invented it”. The LLNL is deeply invested into the bio sciences, working for private companies, the government, and the education system alike.

How to be successful at a place like this

 

 

 

 

 

Dr. Albright had an interesting and refreshing approach to being successful at an institution such as this. With his own career starting at a community college, Dr. Albright worked his way up, but was not interested in an academic career. He had a clear interest in real world applications and situation of his field of study, especially defense. Dr. Albright constantly re-invented himself, focusing on a multitude of issues in his field of defense and security. As he worked his way up , even reaching inside government, his re-invention approach payed off. He said what he liked most was that what he was doing actually had a direct impact. His work influenced policy and national programs (Read his path here). In a lab situation, Dr. Albright described “being good at something’ as a top priority. Spreading your self out on several areas is not a good idea, and can frankly hinder your success. He mentioned that it is very important to set your own standards of the quality of your work, meeting that goal every time. Becoming an expert at something is more valuable than “b’sing” at everything. Dr. Albright also stressed that in our evolving world, careers are no longer involved in one specific schooling subject. Bioscience lab workers are no longer only in the realm of biology, but combine aspects of computation, engineering, and other disciplines in their career. This is where your schooling must become diverse and is very important.

A dark side

 

 

 

 


The LLNL is a place of true innovation, combining the minds of some of the smartest people on this planet to advance the human cause and well being through science and technology. Many great innovations that have come from the LLNL have helped humanity. One aspect of the lab though, is a cause for controversy among people in the United States and the world. The defense aspect which is a huge part of the labs function, is argued to be more harmful than helpful by various groups. The Tri-Valley CARES (link here) is one such organization which argues for nuclear disarmament, and to get rid of the bio-defense weapons LLNL is developing. Many view the development of this technology as immoral and potentially dangerous to the nation. There is a general argument that questions the deterrence of nuclear weapons, and the purpose behind bio-defense weapons, as both cause significant harm to humans when used. This particular subject was not discussed by Dr. Albright, but then again no one in particular brought it up. Should LLNL release it’s views on ethics and provide transparency in terms of the defense developments? It’s a long shot, but it is certainly worth it in our minds.

Oh, Livermore..

The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is a place of science magic, producing true innovation for the betterment of humanity. Ideas, research, and applications that come out of this lab have, and have had the potential to change lives for a good cause. The controversy surrounding the labs defense purpose is rightly brought to view, and should continued to be questioned. However, Dr. Albright represents a lab and team that has the drive to continue science in the right path, bettering humanity in ways we could have never imagined. It was a true treat to hear him speak on what he does specifically at the lab, and the potential for us to one day contribute to this institution.

We will definitely hear more from this lab on a wide breadth of subjects. Keep to umayrsufi.com to learn more throughout the year.

What are your views on the Lab? Let us know in the comments below..

Afterthought:

The opinion in this article is the reflection of the authors of umayrsufi.com, and not the LLNL, DOE, Trivalley CARES, or any other organization/person. All facts stated have links to the source, if a source is missing, contact us at umayrsufi@umayrsufi.com

Leave a Reply