News

September 20, 2013

Hard cold work and unsung research heroes

Research team members prepare the Sierra unmanned aerial system for flight from Oliktok Point. (Photo by Mark Ivey)

by Neal Singer

The Sierra went down over the Arctic Ocean on the morning of July 26, about 60 miles from the northernmost tip of North America. One moment the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) with its 20-foot wingspan was up in the sky, gathering "hard" data over frozen terrain to help climate simulators in comfortable offices make predictions about climate change. The next moment, the little aircraft was gone.

"Just as I walked into the ground control station," says Darin Desilets (6913), "a gentleman from NASA was calling in to air traffic controllers in Deadhorse [a nearby settlement], ‘Flight terminated.’"

The ground control station is at Oliktok Point, the northernmost point of oil-rich Prudhoe Bay on Alaska’s North Slope. The station consists of a series of well-insulated but otherwise commonplace trailers from the 1950s that provide living quarters for researchers. The site’s other feature is an aging hangar in which UAVs can be housed, along with land-based monitoring equipment being assembled to detect features like cloud height, incoming and outgoing radiation, and other factors of climatological interest. The facility, owned by the Air Force, is used by Sandia for DOE’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) program, and provides a launching point to restricted air space for scientific experiments.

‘Try doing our work somewhere else’

"Climate simulators don’t think about how difficult it is to get the data their supercomputers use," says Darin, "but they need that data to develop or even validate how the climate system works."

Oliktok Point, as inaccessible as it is, has the infrastructure to support the frigid research. Oil companies that lease the peninsula require visitors to be badged to use the roads and have limited interest in supporting climate research, but their strong financial presence means forklifts and other equipment can be leased in Deadhorse and there’s an airport on the Arctic Ocean with several flights a day. "Try doing our work somewhere else," Darin says.

The Sierra’s mission was focused on monitoring something called "the sea/ice margin," the point at which the solid ice of the frozen north thaws into open sea. This line moves with the seasons and changes each year.

"This event underscores just why unmanned aircraft are so important in the Arctic," says Darin. "The big deal would be to have a manned aircraft go down on the ice or, worse, in that almost 0 degree C water."

Another aircraft flew over the crash site’s presumed coordinates two days later and saw open water with some ice chunks, indicating the disabled aircraft had probably sunk.

Says Sandia project lead Mark Ivey (6913), "In talking with our team members who were at Oliktok after the loss of Sierra, they said the NASA team took the loss in stride. Losing an unmanned aerial system (UAS) is a calculated risk, a risk that goes up in the Arctic. They are talking seriously about returning with a new UAS next year or the year after." Mark negotiated user agreement hurdles for NASA’s experiments to be run at the site.

Sierra is an acronym for Sensor Integrated Environmental Remote Research Aircraft. The small machine was designed by the US Naval Research Laboratory and developed at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., to perform remote sensing and atmospheric sampling in isolated and often inaccessible regions. It did not require a large runway. Among the achievements that could be inscribed on its watery tombstone, it was the first civilian UAV to be allowed use of ground radar for sensing and avoidance, and the first to be granted a reserved altitude to fly safely from restricted to open air space. "Synchronizing with these FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) procedures should make it easier to fly UAVs from Oliktok in the future," says NASA project manager Matt Fladeland.

Two other UAVs flew successful missions for several weeks with operations concluding on Aug. 9.

Sandia personnel who monitor the barren, windswept site in six-week sessions keep equipment running, help translate flight plans into NOTAMS (Notices to Airmen), ensure correct information is broadcast about activation or deactivation of the restricted area, and help resolve potential conflicts with local aviation concerns over airspace use.

Polar bears provide strong reasons to ignore any impulse to jog, says Jerry Peace (2127), another member of the Sandia Oliktok team.

As the poet John Milton put it, "They also serve who only stand and wait."

* * *

Climate measurement strategy at Oliktok Point has three basic aspects, according to Fred Helsel (6913), Sandia’s Oliktok team leader:

  • • Extensive airborne surface mapping, repeated frequently over sufficiently large areas, to accommodate comparisons with satellite-derived sea surface temperature and sea ice data sets.
  • Sustained, continuous observations of ocean surface, subsurface, and atmospheric conditions over tens of hours, sufficient to investigate sea・]ice/atmosphere interactions and obtained at spatial scales orders of magnitude finer than provided by satellites.
  • Repeated visitation to locations within the drifting ice pack, allowing tracking and observations over a period of weeks to assess how specific portions of the ice pack evolve over the summer.
-- Neal Singer

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Katherine Guzman named a 2013 HENAAC Luminary

Katherine recounts her experiences in graduate school as part of the PhD journey panel at a recruiting event for science and engineering undergraduate students. (Photo by Dino Vournas)

by Patti Koning

The Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Corp. (HENAAC) recently named Katherine Guzman (8114) one of its 2013 Luminary honorees. She will receive her award on Friday, Oct. 5, at the 25th Anniversary HENAAC Conference in New Orleans.

"This is an incredible honor," says Katherine. "I remember going to the HENAAC awards ceremony as an undergraduate and looking up at the award winners with awe, never imagining that one day I might be considered for such an award."

Luminary honorees represent professionals in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics who initiate, collaborate, and lead key programs and research in their companies. These individuals have made significant contributions to the Hispanic technical community as leaders and role models.

"Dr. Guzman truly embodies our core values," says Todd West (8114), Katherine’s former manager. "She consistently executes and leads high-quality work in the face of sometimes challenging and ambiguous environments. She manages effective teams and fosters an attitude of mutual respect. Her outreach activities are equally exemplary. In short, Dr. Guzman is an ideal role model for others considering a career in science, technology, engineering, or math."

Creating new tools

At Sandia, Katherine has distinguished herself with her work in the area of risk management. She played a key role in the development of SUMMIT (Standard Unified Modeling, Mapping, and Integration Toolkit), a new technology to enable emergency management personnel — emergency responders and decision makers — to seamlessly access information from diverse models and data coming from different sources. The creation of these tools is now enabling the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to rigorously plan for and exercise against highly complex disaster scenarios, including detonation of an improvised explosive device in a major metropolitan area, a major earthquake in regions with multiple intersections with critical infrastructure, and a national-level cyberattack.

Katherine is now leading a Sandia effort to define new risk assessments for DHS, work that could shape the way the nation understands and attempts to mitigate the risk of terrorist attacks. The goal is to create risk assessment methodology that is simple and transparent, yet defensible scientifically. This work must effectively bridge the gap between academic risk management theory and the practical problem of national security risk management. One challenge is addressing a complex problem in a meaningful manner to decision-makers.

Service and science

Katherine says science was part of her upbringing. "My father is a scientist and he raised me and my sisters the way he was raised — to ask a lot of questions," she says. "He spent a lot of time explaining to us the how and why of everything."

Her future in mechanical engineering became apparent at a young age. "I was always more interested in building furniture for my dolls than playing with the dolls themselves," says Katherine. "Making things was what

fascinated me."

As a college student at the University of Texas at Austin, Katherine took the opportunity to study abroad in Peru, her mother’s native country. Her parents met when her dad was a Peace Corps volunteer in Peru, so her mother moved to the United States as an adult. "This was a chance for me to connect with my mother’s family and really understand where she came from," says Katherine.

Katherine earned her PhD in mechanical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. As both an undergraduate and graduate student, she found herself one of few women and even fewer

Hispanic women.

When it came time to consider where to begin her career, service was at the front of Katherine’s mind. "My father served in the Peace Corps and my mother was a social worker, so I was raised with a very keen sense of making a contribution to the world," she says. "My dad is an agronomist and he felt that he, as part of a large community of scientists, was helping to solve world hunger through his work. That’s a pretty noble cause to go to work for every day. So coming to Sandia was a natural choice because our work has true national impact."

One of the things Katherine loves about her work at Sandia is that there is no perfect solution to the problems she is trying to solve. "Managing risk is a really tough problem and I enjoy wrestling with that," she explains. "I enjoy the stimulating discussions as I work with colleagues to pick apart the problem and chip away at it. I find this very fulfilling."

Katherine is also driven by a personal passion to help minorities and women in science and engineering achieve their career dreams. As an undergraduate and graduate engineering student at two of the country’s largest and most prestigious universities, she encountered very few female and minority role models and virtually no female minority role models. That is something she hopes to change with her work as a leader, mentor, and keynote speaker.

A role model in the community

"Katherine is a role model within both the Hispanic and women in engineering communities, at local, regional and national levels," says Peter Davies (6200), director of Nuclear Energy and Fuel Cell Programs. He worked closely with Katherine in his previous role as director of Homeland Security and Defense Systems Center 8100.

Outside of work, Katherine stays busy with her husband and two young sons. As a family, they enjoy camping, nature, and baseball. Over the past summer, they hit a number of major league ballparks — the San Francisco Giants and Oakland A’s, naturally, along with the LA Dodgers, San Diego Padres, Chicago Cubs, and St. Louis Cardinals.

"Balancing work with family and community is important to me," says Katherine. "I want to instill in my sons the values I was raised with — hard work, the value of education, the importance of community, and respect for everyone."

-- Patti Koning

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Sandia hosts NNSA’s first National Science and Security Consortium Minority Serving Institution student

NNSC intern Zach Strater and his mentor Mark Gerling discuss Mobile Imager of Neutrons for Emergency Responders (MINER). While at Sandia last summer, Zach evaluated how the performance of MINER compares with conventional He-3-based detectors. (Photo by Dino Vournas)

by Patti Koning

Zach Strater, a junior at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, spent his summer evaluating neutron detectors at Sandia. He came to the Labs through a fellowship from NNSA’s National Science and Security Consortium (NSSC), a multi-institution consortium led by the University of California, Berkeley.

The consortium partners — Michigan State University; UC Davis; UC Irvine; the UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation (IGCC) based in San Diego; the University of Nevada, Las Vegas; and Washington University in St. Louis — are collaborating with three DOE laboratories in addition to Sandia: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). The consortium also brought in a wider network of affiliates from minority serving institutions (MSI). Zach is the first NSSC-MSI student fellow to be placed at a national laboratory.

Zach’s work supported the Mobile Imager of Neutrons for Emergency Responders (MINER) project, which is developing a portable fast neutron scatter camera for emergency response applications. Mark Gerling (8132), one of the designers of MINER, served as Zach’s mentor.

Thermal neutron systems based on Helium-3 are frequently the detectors of choice when searching for special nuclear material. Helium-3 detectors are very efficient for measuring the gross neutron count rate, but because they slow down the neutrons to thermal energy to detect them, most of the information about the neutrons is lost.

MINER uses multiple liquid scintillator (LS) cells coupled to photomultiplier tubes and is sensitive to neutrons in an energy range characteristic of a fission spectrum. The data acquisition of MINER captures and analyzes the time-dependent output of each photomultiplier tube to determine if each pulse of light in the LS cell resulted from a gamma ray or neutron interaction. The sum of all neutron-like interactions from the 16 LS cells is the gross neutron count rate that can be compared to the Helium-3 backpack detection system. MINER, however, can also analyze the data from all LS cells to look for signatures that would be characteristic of a single neutron interaction in two different LS cells (i.e., a double scatter event). By analyzing the data associated with these double-scatter events, both a low resolution image and energy spectrum of the emitting source of neutrons can be created. This additional information is not available with Helium-3 backpack detectors.

"We are often asked how MINER compares to a Helium-3 detector," says Craig Tewell (8132), manager of the Rad/Nuc Detection Systems group. "Zach has spent his summer working on that comparison." So far, says Zach, the data for MINER looks promising.

The summer has had a big impact on Zach — he’s now considering graduate school. "Before I came here,

I had no interest in graduate school," he says. "But now I’m seriously considering a PhD because I now see how it opens up so many different options and allows you to become quite specialized within a field."

Sandia is involved in two additional NNSC projects. UC Berkeley graduate student Patricia Schuster is working with both LLNL and Sandia on an NSSC-funded project to understand the anisotropic light emission from crystalline organic scintillators. Mark Allendorf (8600) and Patrick Doty (8131) also received an NSSC grant to work with Clark University professor Conrad Ingram on advanced materials radiation detection.

The goal of NSSC is to support the nation’s nuclear nonproliferation mission by focusing on the hands-on training of undergraduate and graduate students in the fields of nuclear physics, nuclear and radiation chemistry, nuclear engineering, nuclear instrumentation, and public policy. Sandia played a role in helping UC Berkeley win the proposal to lead NSSC through its connections with the university’s nuclear engineering department. (Lab News 8/12/2011)

-- Patti Koning

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