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    The DOE Science News Source is a Newswise initiative to promote research news from the Office of Science of the DOE to the public and news media.
    • 2017-12-20 13:05:01
    • Article ID: 687165

    Q&A: Sam Webb Teaches X-Ray Science from a Remote Classroom

    The staff scientist at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource discusses his research and teaching, which includes training an international group of students to conduct geobiology experiments at the synchrotron from an island about 350 miles away.

    • Credit: Chris Smith/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

      Usha Lingappa, Caltech graduate student (left) Sam Webb, SLAC staff scientist (center), and Woody Fischer, geobiology professor at Caltech (right) working together on an experiment at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource.

    • Credit: Sam Webb/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

      Aerial view of the University of Southern California’s Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island.

    • Credit: Dawn Harmer/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

      Sam Webb, staff scientist, lectures about studying the color of dinosaurs with X-rays at SLAC’s 2017 Kids’ Night.

    When Sam Webb teaches, he shows that science is a part of everyday life. For him, it’s important that students learn science does not need to be intimidating. 

    Webb is a staff scientist at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Acceleratory Laboratory. He started working at SSRL in the fall of 2001 as a postdoctoral researcher.

    Over the years, he’s helped with the annual Kids Night at SLAC and other lab outreach events. Webb often visits local classrooms to give science lessons, from demonstrations at his daughter’s preschool to guest lectures at high schools and colleges.

    Webb earned his undergraduate and master’s degree at Caltech and a PhD at Northwestern University. His commitment to teaching and strong Caltech connection recently led to a unusual development where graduate students in a geobiology course at the university can watch their X-ray experiments run at SSRL without leaving Southern California.

    Q: Why do you think science students should learn X-ray techniques?

    It’s one of those tool sets that’s very important for geological, biological and environmental sciences, because you can find a lot of information that you can’t get with other techniques.

    You can look at the precise chemistry of samples on really small scales, all the way up to large-scale systems. So X-ray science can be useful to a lot of researchers, and they don’t always get a chance to learn how to actually do it.

    Q: How did you become interested in synchrotron research?

    During my PhD studies, I was working on an environmental science project that looked at contaminants in the sediments of a lake with a zinc smelter at the edge.

    My advisor had never done any research at synchrotrons, but he thought if someone was motivated and wanted to learn about X-rays, it would be a good way to answer some of the questions we had about the different types of metals present in the sediments.

    It was really fun to work with a big accelerator at the Advanced Photon Source (APS) at DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory. So when I was done with the project, I thought it’d be great to do some more of the same type of research.

    Q: Tell me more about the course you co-taught at Caltech.

    It’s a 5-week intensive course where the students do a few weeks of field work and collect different types of samples including rock, sediment and DNA. They also analyze those samples in the lab. The goal of the course is to learn how to look at the relationships between geology and what’s living on Earth.

    We’ve taught a variety of techniques, such as taking thin slices of rock samples, extracting DNA and lipids, and doing electron microscopy. This year we thought it would be cool to add synchrotron X-ray methods, because that might not be something a student would be exposed to in a typical geobiology course.

    There were about 20 students taking the course this past year. Because it was too difficult to get all the students up to Northern California from the Los Angeles area, we decided to operate the synchrotron remotely from Southern California.

    Q: How did that work, exactly?

    I went down to Santa Catalina Island, where part of the course takes place at the University of Southern California’s Wrigley Marine Science Center. While I was there, I could run the SSRL beamline from my computer in a lecture hall setting. We had a postdoctoral researcher at SSRL helping us actually put the samples in front of the beam, so we could analyze the students’ samples remotely.

    The students did some preliminary work in advance to figure out what they wanted to know, and we would discuss what we might be able to get with the technique. We then looked at the results together as they came out in real time from the beamline. It was a lot like doing three days of actual beam time; we just weren’t at SSRL. Many of the samples came from areas of interest in California – such as Mono Lake and the Monterey Formation. We used the X-rays to study the relationships between microbiology and the rock record, both in terms of current processes and those that may have happened millions of years ago.

    Q: When did you start using X-rays for geobiology research?

    Woody Fischer – a geobiology professor at Caltech – had called me out of the blue. Someone had suggested that he contact me if he was interested in examining manganese in rocks. Over the phone, we talked about X-ray techniques and what we could do with them, and then I invited him to come up for some of my beam time during the following week. It all worked really well, and we wrote up a proposal for some additional time at SSRL, and we’ve been working together ever since.

    We started with the chemistry of manganese in rocks that are 2.5 billion years old. This is around the time that oxygen started building up in Earth’s atmosphere, produced by ancient bacteria that used manganese-containing enzymes for photosynthesis. The manganese records in these rocks helped us hypothesize that there may have been cyanobacteria that could do photosynthesis linked to the manganese cycle before they evolved the ability to evolve oxygen. We’ve also started looking at iron-sulfur cycles within early Earth. And we’re continuing to look at manganese in meteorites, as well as samples from Earth in the form of desert varnish – a dark coating of minerals and elements that can form on rocks found in extremely dry climates. So we’re focusing on geobiology in both modern and ancient systems, here on Earth and in extraterrestrial environments.

    Q: What are some of the challenges with investigating these types of samples?

    Some of these rocks are more than 2 billion years old, so a lot can happen in that time. It takes quite a bit of careful work to look at the relationships within the rock on a microscale. We want to understand how it might have changed and when, to avoid the pitfalls of making conclusions based on something that happened at a different time in a rock’s history.

    Q: Do you often run the beamlines from a remote location?

    Not usually, because it’s helpful to be able to see what you’re working on. But this sort of remote access allows us to support and troubleshoot four beamlines with our limited staff of two or three people.

    This is the first time we’ve used remote access in a course setting. It was a lot of fun and the students seemed excited to find ways to apply the newly learned technique to their research.

    Some of the results are really interesting, and we’ll try to publish those findings. So there’s some real science that will come out of the project, as well. 

    SSRL and APS are DOE Office of Science user facilities.


    SLAC is a multi-program laboratory exploring frontier questions in photon science, astrophysics, particle physics and accelerator research. Located in Menlo Park, Calif., SLAC is operated by Stanford University for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science. For more information, please visit slac.stanford.edu.

    SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory is supported by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy. The 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 science.energy.gov.

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    Hidden Giants in Forest Soils

    Viruses can infect the microbes residing in, on and around soils, impacting their ability to regulate these global cycles. In Nature Communications, giant virus genomes have been discovered for the first time in a forest soil ecosystem by researchers from the DOE Joint Genome Institute and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

    Scientists Produce 3-D Chemical Maps of Single Bacteria

    Scientists at the National Synchrotron Light Source II (NSLS-II)--a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science User Facility at DOE's Brookhaven National Laboratory--have used ultrabright x-rays to image single bacteria with higher spatial resolution than ever before. Their work, published in Scientific Reports, demonstrates an x-ray imaging technique, called x-ray fluorescence microscopy (XRF), as an effective approach to produce 3-D images of small biological samples.

    Making X-ray Microscopy 10 Times Faster

    Microscopes make the invisible visible. And compared to conventional light microscopes, transmission x-ray microscopes (TXM) can see into samples with much higher resolution, revealing extraordinary details. Researchers across a wide range of scientific fields use TXM to see the structural and chemical makeup of their samples--everything from biological cells to energy storage materials.

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    Analyses of natural communities forming soil crusts agree with laboratory studies of isolated microbe-metabolite relationships.

    Self-Sensing Materials Are Here

    Oak Ridge National Laboratory researchers invented a way to make a nanomaterial-embedded composite that is stronger than other fiber-reinforced composites and imbued with a new capability--the ability to monitor its own structural health.

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    Evidence suggests that biorefineries can accept various feedstocks without negatively impacting the amount of ethanol produced per acre.

    Opening Access to Explore the Synthetic Chemistry of Neptunium

    New, easily prepared starting material opens access to learning more about a difficult-to-control element in nuclear waste.

    Symbiosis a Driver of Truffle Diversity

    Truffles are thought of as dining delicacies but they play an important role in soil ecosystem services as the fruiting bodies of the ectomycorrhizal (ECM) fungal symbionts residing on host plant roots. An international team sought insights into the ECM lifestyle of truffle-forming species through a comparative analysis of eight fungal genomes.

    Climate Simulations Project Wetter, Windier Hurricanes

    New supercomputer simulations by climate scientists at the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have shown that climate change intensified the amount of rainfall in recent hurricanes such as Katrina, Irma, and Maria by 5 to 10 percent. They further found that if those hurricanes were to occur in a future world that is warmer than present, those storms would have even more rainfall and stronger winds.

    Tiny Titanium Barrier Halts Big Problem in Fuel-Producing Solar Cells

    New design coats molecular components and dramatically improves stability under tough, oxidizing conditions.


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    Four Argonne Technologies Receive 2018 R&D 100 Awards

    Four Argonne research projects have earned R&D 100 Awards, long considered the "Oscars" of scientific innovation.

    Argonne's Min Si receives early career award from IEEE Computer Society

    Argonne's Min Si wins Award for Excellence for Early Career Researchers in High Performance Computing through the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

    Jefferson Lab Director Appointed to Distinguished Professorship

    Stuart Henderson, director of the Department of Energy's Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, has been appointed the Governor's Distinguished CEBAF professor at Old Dominion University. The position is supported by the Commonwealth of Virginia and is named for the Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility, which is the main research facility located at Jefferson Lab.

    DOE issues call for HPC for Energy Innovation proposals

    The U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) High Performance Computing for Energy Innovation (HPC4EI) Initiative today issued its first joint solicitation for the High Performance Computing for Manufacturing Program (HPC4Mfg) and the High Performance Computing for Materials Program (HPC4Mtls).

    DOE funding advances project to turn captured CO2 into key chemicals

    The U.S. Department of Energy has selected Southern Research for an award of up to $1.5 million to advance technology for carbon dioxide utilization.

    Sierra Reaches Higher Altitudes, Takes Number Two Spot on List of Fastest Supercomputers

    Sierra, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's newest supercomputer, rose to second place on the list of the world's fastest computing systems, TOP500 List representatives announced Monday at the International Conference for High Performance Computing, Networking, Storage and Analysis conference (SC18) in Dallas.

    Green energy: Wind energy agreement will provide savings, 50 percent of electricity needs for Kansas State University Manhattan campus

    Kansas State University has signed an agreement with Westar Energy to provide approximately 50 percent of the energy needs for the university's main Manhattan campus from a wind farm in Nemaha County and save the university nearly $200,000 annually.

    INCITE grants awarded to 62 computational research projects

    The U.S. Department of Energy announced new projects for 2019 through its Innovative and Novel Computational Impact on Theory and Experiment (INCITE) program.

    Argonne's Raj Kettimuthu Named ACM Distinguished Member

    Argonne computer scientist Raj Kettimuthu recently was named a Distinguished Member of the Association for Computing Machinery for his development of tools to analyze and enhance end-to-end data transfer performance.

    Jefferson Lab-Affiliated Researchers Honored as APS Fellows

    The Department of Energy's Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility now has a few more fellows on campus. The American Physical Society, a professional membership society that works on behalf of the physics community, recently announced its list of 2018 fellowships.


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    Microbes Eat the Same in Labs and the Desert

    Analyses of natural communities forming soil crusts agree with laboratory studies of isolated microbe-metabolite relationships.

    Diverse Biofeedstocks Have High Ethanol Yields and Offer Biorefineries Flexibility

    Evidence suggests that biorefineries can accept various feedstocks without negatively impacting the amount of ethanol produced per acre.

    Opening Access to Explore the Synthetic Chemistry of Neptunium

    New, easily prepared starting material opens access to learning more about a difficult-to-control element in nuclear waste.

    Tiny Titanium Barrier Halts Big Problem in Fuel-Producing Solar Cells

    New design coats molecular components and dramatically improves stability under tough, oxidizing conditions.

    Turning Wood Scraps into Tape

    A new chemical process converts a component of wasted wood pulp and other biomass into high-value pressure-sensitive adhesives.

    Very Heavy Elements Deliver More Electrons

    Scientists revise understanding of the limits of bonding for very electron-rich heavy elements.

    Probing Water's "No-Man's Land" Temperature Region

    Measuring the physical properties of water at previously unexplored temperatures offers insights into one of the world's essential liquids.

    Novel Soil Bacteria with Unusual Genes Synthesize Unique Antibiotic Precursors

    A large-scale soil project uncovered genetic information from bacteria with the capacity to make specialized molecules that could lead to new pharmaceuticals.

    Warmer Temperatures Lengthen Growing Season, Increase Plants' Vulnerability to Frost

    Experimental warming treatments show how peatland forests may respond to future environmental change.

    Rising Stars Seek to Learn from the Master: Mother Nature

    A trio of scientists was recognized for their early career successes in uncovering how microbes produce fuel, insights that could change our energy portfolio


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