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Natalie Roe Named Berkeley Lab’s Associate Director for Physical Sciences 

She has pursued research in particle physics, detector instrumentation, and cosmology, and has led the Physics Division for the past eight years

Image - Natalie Roe

Natalie Roe

Natalie Roe, who joined Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) as a postdoctoral fellow in 1989 and has served as Physics Division director since 2012, has been named the Lab’s Associate Laboratory Director (ALD) for the Physical Sciences Area. Her appointment was approved by the University of California on Tuesday and was effective July 1, 2020. The announcement follows an international search. 

The Physical Sciences Area, which has more than 1,500 staff including affiliates, is made up of the Lab’s Physics, Nuclear Science, Engineering, and Accelerator Technology and Applied Physics divisions. Roe succeeds James Symons, who has served as ALD since 2011.

Roe is an internationally known physicist who has contributed to a long list of experiments and has nearly 400 scientific publications to her name. Her research career is distinguished by her work – both as a team member and as a leader – in building detectors and other instrumentation for experiments in particle physics and cosmology.

“I have worked closely with Natalie – first as a physics colleague, building the Silicon Vertex Tracker instrument, and now as a division director – here at the Lab,” said Berkeley Lab Director Mike Witherell. “She has always demonstrated both superb scientific intuition and the ability to lead a large team. She is the right person to take on the distinguished legacy of Physical Sciences at Berkeley Lab.”

Roe has championed diversity and inclusion and career advancement opportunities at Berkeley Lab. During her tenure as Physics Division director, Roe has recruited over 20 young scientists, four of whom have already received prestigious DOE Early Career Awards. She hopes to help further the careers of staff within the Physical Sciences Area by launching a mentoring program this year for postdocs and early career scientists. 

“One of the core values that Berkeley Lab brings is innovation,” Roe said. “While Berkeley Lab is not the biggest Department of Energy lab in high energy or nuclear physics, I think we’ve had an outsized influence by coming up with new ideas, new experiments, and new detectors.”

She added, “It starts with hiring really creative scientists who think outside of the box.”

Image - Natalie Roe works with students participating in internships offered by the Lab's Center for Science and Engineering Education in this 2006 photo. (Credit: Roy Kaltschmidt/Berkeley Lab)

Natalie Roe works with students participating in internships offered by the Lab’s Center for Science and Engineering Education in this 2006 photo. (Credit: Roy Kaltschmidt/Berkeley Lab)

Roe has overseen a broad portfolio of physics experiments in her time as Physics Division Director. She has had management oversight of two successful Berkeley Lab-led DOE construction projects: the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI) at Kitt Peak, Arizona, and the dark matter experiment LUX-ZEPLIN (LZ) in South Dakota. DESI will measure the spectra of about 35 million galaxies to produce an even larger 3D map and further investigate dark energy with percent-level precision, while LZ will search for dark matter signals deep underground.

Under her leadership the division has expanded its efforts in dark matter and cosmic microwave background (CMB) research, quantum information science, and machine learning. 

As Physical Sciences Area ALD, Roe’s scope will be much broader. She envisions major roles for Berkeley Lab in the Electron-Ion Collider planned at Brookhaven National Laboratory, for example, and the CMB-S4 (Cosmic Microwave Background Stage-4) project in Chile and at the South Pole, as well as next-generation experiments looking for dark matter and for a theorized particle process called neutrinoless double-beta decay.

Berkeley Lab has long been a leader in developing high-field magnets, which will be essential for the new, very large accelerators now under consideration, and is also leading the way in laser plasma acceleration technology.

“The combination of deep scientific expertise, together with LBNL’s strong engineering teams, guarantees that Berkeley Lab will remain a leader in nuclear and particle physics for years to come,” Roe said.

She looks to build on the solid foundation in Physical Sciences built by outgoing ALD James Symons, whose career at Berkeley Lab spans 43 years. Before serving as ALD, Symons served two separate 10-year stints as Nuclear Science Division director: from 1985-95 and again from 2002 to 2012.

As chairman of the Nuclear Science Advisory Committee from 2000 to 2002, Symons had helped to set a long-range plan for the U.S. nuclear science community, and under his leadership the Lab expanded its science footprint, securing key roles in nuclear science and physics experiments around the country and world. 

Roe’s interest in particle physics began as a physics undergraduate at Harvard University, where she worked in the laboratory of Carlo Rubbia. Rubbia was leading a particle physics experiment at CERN called UA1 (Underground Area 1), and when Roe received her bachelor’s degree she went to Switzerland for a year to work on UA1.

“I worked on the experiment while it was under construction,” she said. “It gave me the opportunity to see what these big science teams were all about.”

Reflecting on that experience, and on Rubbia’s strong personality in driving the experiment – Rubbia won a Nobel Prize in 1984 for discoveries enabled by UA1 – Roe said she sees parallels in Berkeley Lab’s own history: “(Ernest) Lawrence originated the concept of team science: someone with a scientific vision can achieve something much greater than the sum of its parts, by assembling a multi-disciplinary team – that’s what this Lab has been able to do time and time again.”

When she joined Berkeley Lab as a postdoctoral fellow in 1989, Roe worked on the DZero detector for Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory’s Tevatron Collider, which was then the most powerful collider in the world. She was part of a team at Berkeley Lab that built components for DZero, and carried out data analysis of the particle properties of W and Z bosons.

In the early ’90s a new type of collider, called the asymmetric B Factory, was proposed to provide a window to study the subtle differences between matter and antimatter known as charge-parity (CP) violation. Intrigued by this new physics opportunity, Roe began to focus her efforts on the design and construction of the detector, earning a leading role in the construction of the silicon vertex tracker (SVT) for what became the BaBar experiment at SLAC.

Image - Natalie Roe played a leading role in the construction of the Silicon Vertex Detector, pictured here, that was used with the BaBar experiment at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. (Credit: Roy Kaltschmidt/Berkeley Lab)

Natalie Roe played a leading role in the construction of the Silicon Vertex Detector, pictured here, that was used with the BaBar experiment at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. (Credit: Roy Kaltschmidt/Berkeley Lab)

“The SVT was a pretty ambitious project for its time,” Roe said, “requiring the design of a radiation-hard readout chip and a unique detector architecture.” Roe co-led a team of six Italian and six U.S. groups and delivered the SVT on time for the start of experiments in 1999. One of the leads for the U.S. SVT groups was Mike Witherell, then a professor at UC Santa Barbara; Witherell is now Berkeley Lab’s Director.

“The SVT survived for the entire lifetime of the BaBar experiment, despite the intense radiation levels,” she said. Once BaBar started taking data, Roe participated in the data analysis, which observed CP violation in accord with Standard Model predictions.

Drawn by the excitement of the Nobel Prize-winning discovery by Berkeley Lab’s Saul Perlmutter and his team that the universe was expanding faster and faster, driven by mysterious dark energy – and by other opportunities in cosmology – Roe changed her career focus.

“I turned my research direction from particle physics to cosmology, and the big mysteries of dark energy and dark matter, which are clear evidence that the Standard Model of particle physics must be incomplete,” she said.

She joined the Sloan Digital Sky Survey collaboration as the Instrument Scientist for the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey, leading the upgrade of the light-measuring spectrographs, which used state-of-the-art light sensors, called CCDs, developed at Berkeley Lab. At the time, Roe was leading Berkeley Lab’s MicroSystems Laboratory, which has built custom CCDs and other specialized components for a range of experiments.

“What I’ve enjoyed most in my career is seeing a new idea for an experiment go from an idea to a technical proposal, and then blossoming into a full-fledged experiment,” Roe said. “Then you start building it, making it work, and taking data. That whole process is really rewarding – to see the physics results come after all of that work.”

Roe is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Physical Society, and served as president of the APS Division of Particles and Fields. She was a founding member of Berkeley Lab’s Women Scientists and Engineers Council (WSEC) in 2012 and is an executive sponsor of the Lab’s Early Career Employee Resource Group.

Some of Roe’s current and past participation in national, international, and Berkeley Lab committees and panels:

  • Member, CERN Scientific Policy Committee
  • Member, Fermilab Physics Advisory Committee
  • Member, DESY Scientific Advisory Committee
  • Member, DOE/NSF High Energy Physics Advisory Panel
  • Chair, American Physical Society Division of Particles and Fields

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