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Masks On, Ready to Work: Meet the People Supporting COVID-19 Science

Berkeley Lab workers provide essential services to scientists working on COVID-19-related research

Berkeley Lab staff (from left) David Richardson, Rosanne Boudreau, and James Singzon are making it possible for scientists to conduct research related to COVID-19. (Credit: Berkeley Lab)

David Richardson’s job is literally to make sure the light stays on. But it’s not just any light – it’s a very special X-ray light that could play a crucial role in an eventual treatment for COVID-19.

Richardson is an operator at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s synchrotron light source facility, the Advanced Light Source (ALS), and is one of a handful of workers providing essential services to scientists working on COVID-19-related research. Scientists have always relied on these staff members – the technicians, computing specialists, facilities managers, and others who make research possible – but their work has taken on a new sense of urgency these days. And as the Bay Area continues to shelter in place, these workers are among the few who are even allowed onto the Berkeley Lab site.

“With COVID-19, there is an awareness that work done at the ALS in the coming weeks may save thousands and thousands of lives in the immediate future,” Richardson said. “When treatments, a vaccine, or a cure for this disease are found, there’s a very good chance that the light sources of the world will have contributed to that victory. This adds a new dimension of meaning to the work we do at ALS.”

Berkeley Lab, a multidisciplinary national lab under the Department of Energy (DOE), has not only launched a number of its own research efforts in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it has also set aside dedicated time at its science facilities for researchers from other institutions to use. Those facilities include the Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts Process Development Unit (ABPDU), for testing manufacturing of bioproducts; the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC), a supercomputing center; the Molecular Foundry, for nanoscale science; and the ALS. (None of the facilities is working with live virus.)

David Richardson – keeping the light on

photo of Dave Richardson

David Richardson is an operator at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s synchrotron light source facility, the Advanced Light Source (ALS). (Courtesy David Richardson)

The ALS is a synchrotron facility operated by Berkeley Lab for the U.S. Department of Energy. It normally gets about 2,000 scientific users a year from around the world, whose experiments are awarded “beam time” if they pass a peer-review proposal process. The ALS uses a particle accelerator to produce extremely bright beams of infrared, ultraviolet, and X-ray light that allow researchers to examine matter – such as proteins – at the molecular and atomic level.

Normally, the ALS would be performing 40 simultaneous experiments spanning fields from physics and chemistry to materials science and biology. Now, only a handful of biology experiments are being performed on behalf of academic researchers as well as scientists from a number of pharmaceutical companies. (Read this article for more information.)

Richardson’s job is to make sure those researchers have access to the beams of light they need. “There’s a lot of work that goes into making sure the beam stays stable and reliable,” he said. “There are many control systems and feedback loops involved. One thing we’re doing in the control room is responding to any alarms that go off and adjusting to any irregularities that arise. In case the beam is lost, which happens about once every 40 hours, we have to find the fault, correct it, and return the beam to our experimenters.”

The ALS typically operates 24/7 with two or three operators per shift, but to comply with shelter-in-place orders, the ALS is providing light only a few days a week with just one operator and one electronics technologist per shift. “We have a lot of shared keyboards and mice, so after each shift we carefully disinfect those with alcohol,” Richardson said, then added, “It’s an honor to be part of this global effort!”

Rosanne Boudreau – safety first

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Rosanne Boudreau is the safety coordinator for Berkeley Lab’s Biosciences Area. (Courtesy Rosanne Boudreau)

Rosanne Boudreau’s job, as the safety coordinator for Berkeley Lab’s Biosciences Area at its satellite site in Emeryville, California, is to make sure all experiments and research are conducted safely. Before any experiment starts, she will look at all the possible hazards and help implement any controls that should be put into place to mitigate those hazards.

Since the coronavirus pandemic started, as scientists undertake new projects related to COVID-19, she has also worried about how to make sure they can maintain six feet of distance apart from each other while doing their work. Some measures that she has implemented for keeping researchers and staff safe in light of social distancing guidelines involve adjusting work schedules, re-arranging work benches, and hanging “knock before entering” signs. She provides support and oversight for areas such as chemical management and the appropriate handling of biological samples at the facility, which is rated biosafety level 2.

“It’s my job to worry,” she said. “But if it keeps everyone safe and working productively then I’m happy to be the office worry wart.”

Boudreau and the site operations team continue to work to address safety in light of emerging information about virus transmission.

James Singzon – ensuring the performance of high-performance computers

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James Singzon is a site reliability engineer at NERSC, the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center. (Courtesy James Singzon)

For James Singzon, a site reliability engineer at NERSC, remote users and light staffing are old hat. Singzon works night and weekend shifts at Berkeley Lab’s renowned computing center, where he keeps the machines running smoothly so that scientists from across the globe can process their complex data. Before the shelter-in-place began, Singzon was either solo or one of two people on-site during his shifts, but he looked forward to the camaraderie of catching up with the group of morning shift workers when they arrived to take over.

“I miss the cheery hellos and smiling faces as they checked in with me,” he said, explaining that the staffing schedule was modified so that only one person comes on-site per shift, and the rest of the team work remotely. “With minimal staffing on-site, I no longer have that opportunity to interact in person, however, my group has implemented what we call the ‘otg-kitchen,’ [for ‘operations technology group’] where staff can talk on Zoom as I prepare to leave in the morning.”

NERSC, which has remained fully operational from the early days of the shelter-in-place through the present thanks to its existing remote operating features, is now participating in the COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium – a public-private agreement among federal government, industry, and academic teams to volunteer free computing time and resources on their world-class machines. NERSC has initially set aside up to 1.25 million node hours on its Cori supercomputer – capable of performing nearly 30 quadrillion calculations per second – in support of COVID-19-related research.

According to Singzon, keeping advanced machinery like Cori operating at peak capacity for its 7,000-plus international users has always been a 24/7 job, and one he is proud to do. Yet the task has taken on even more meaning in the face of the current crisis.

“I have a little sister who is a nurse in Pennsylvania, a half-sister who is a doctor administering COVID-19 tests in San Francisco, and my father is an ER doctor at Mercy Medical Center Merced,” he said. “I am beyond proud of people in the trenches helping those who are sick with this disease and the researchers who are searching to find a vaccine or a cure; to support them by ensuring NERSC computational resources are available is an honor and allows my work to be a small part of the solution.”

NERSC and the ALS are DOE Office of Science user facilities.

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Founded in 1931 on the belief that the biggest scientific challenges are best addressed by teams, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and its scientists have been recognized with 13 Nobel Prizes. Today, Berkeley Lab researchers develop sustainable energy and environmental solutions, create useful new materials, advance the frontiers of computing, and probe the mysteries of life, matter, and the universe. Scientists from around the world rely on the Lab’s facilities for their own discovery science. Berkeley Lab is a multiprogram national laboratory, managed by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

DOE’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit energy.gov/science.

Media contact:

Laurel Kellner,  [email protected], 510-590-8034