Brookhaven Lab’s Visiting Faculty Program Fosters New Nano Center at SUNY – Buffalo State

UPTON, NY and BUFFALO, NY – The Visiting Faculty Program (VFP) is a 10-week summer session that provides college faculty members the opportunity to collaborate with scientific and engineering staff on a project of mutual interest, with up to two students, at a US Department of Energy (DOE) national laboratory. Their results are presented at the end of the program and their work may even appear in contributions to scientific journals.

The Visiting Faculty Program is sponsored and managed by the DOE Office of Science’s Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists (WDTS) in collaboration with the DOE laboratories. The program aims to benefit faculty and students at institutions that have been historically underrepresented in the research community and leverage their expertise in DOE mission areas. Ten weeks pass quickly, however, and while a lot of impactful research can happen in that time, additional visits could allow for these collaborations to build up to something bigger.

This is exactly what happened when WDTS sponsored Brookhaven National Laboratory to initiate a pilot program for an extension of the VFP. Visiting professor Saquib Ahmed and his students from SUNY-Buffalo State were the perfect candidates for this pilot. The original program allowed faculty to participate for up to five summers, but this had an impact on project continuity. Having year-long engagements, however, allowed them to be able to continue their work at Brookhaven’s Center for Functional Nanomaterials (CFN) and expand those ideas into the foundation for a nanoscience center at their home institution.

“What this program extension was designed to do is take someone with that summer experience, like Saquib, and then free them up a little bit at the university to really focus on strengthening the collaboration with the Laboratory through release time from one of their courses during a semester,” explained Kenneth White, Manager of the Office of Educational Programs (OEP) at Brookhaven Lab and manager of the VFP program. “In other words, if a professor in this program is teaching five classes, releasing them from one course using DOE funding would allow them to only teach four, freeing them up to achieve a greater impact from this program.”

“It was a very successful pilot,” remarked Noel Blackburn, Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Officer at Brookhaven and a former VFP manager. “Now, as a result, we have a new program where faculty have the opportunity to continue their research for the duration of a standard semester.”

When Blackburn encouraged Ahmed to build out a center on the Buffalo State campus, he took the challenge seriously. He not only considered the immediate research benefits, but also how the facility he envisioned would enrich students entering the workforce and ripple out into the community.

“SUNY – Buffalo State is the largest comprehensive college in the SUNY system, with a rich and diverse student body,” he explained. “It is at the nexus of medical, technological, financial, political, and data science corridors. A big part of our vision is in developing students’ versatility and mobility in the work force through multifaceted training, with the aim to positively impact equity and social justice.”

The Center for Integrated Studies in Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (CISNN) at SUNY – Buffalo State was developed as a holistic facility that drives and sustains research by not just focusing on critical nanoscience but accelerating discovery using data science while simultaneously delving into the economic viability of a given technology and its ethical, legal, and social implications. This would bring faculty and students from vastly different areas of expertise together. Ahmed knew it would be a challenge to build, especially with dwindling resources accelerated by a lingering pandemic but realized that consolidating these unique fields under one banner could be the solution.

Ahmed is no stranger to a diverse skillset, having two undergraduate majors–physics and mathematics, and two minors–economics and industrial engineering, a foundation for his expertise in the area of nanophysics, where he focused his masters and PhD work, paving the way for a nearly decade-long stint in industry at the Intel Corporation. The culmination of these experiences provided the motivation for Ahmed to seek out more integrated solutions to problems. Even at Brookhaven Lab’s CFN, he took advantage of having access to several different experts in the field of nanoscience to get a broader scope.

“These were some of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met,” he remarked. “I initially started with one collaborator in a specific area and now, through the exposure that the VFP has offered me, and especially now that the Center is up and running, I am setting up at least three more collaborations in the areas of quantum materials, catalysis, and supercapacitor work, respectively. These areas of focus resonate with the Center and the Brookhaven Lab scientists in these fields are really pushing the envelope. This is breakthrough science and engineering, and I am excited to be a part of these efforts”

This intense collaboration and mentorship was built in spite of some of the limitations put in place due to the pandemic. Most of the program was done virtually, but Ahmed and his students were able to combine their own resources with those at Brookhaven to the best of their abilities when meeting in person was not feasible.

“I’m, primarily, a computational physicist, so this work can be done on high-performance servers on our campus,” Ahmed explained, “so in my group, with my students, we were able to perform some studies this way and the initial summer session last year was very productive. As a result of everyone being at home, there were chunks of time that folks could really dedicate to computational work and achieve some valuable insights.”

After building something so profound from their experience at Brookhaven Lab through the VFP, Saquib Ahmed recommends this program to college faculty and their students. By having the resources and expertise found within a national laboratory at their fingertips, research can be accelerated, and professional relationships can be forged. He had some sound advice for future researchers enrolled in next year’s program:

“It helps to keep a focus on how you could be the most impactful with your time. Start by taking a deep breath and assessing where you want to go. How can I utilize everything I have available to me strategically? Not just right now, but for the future. Not just for myself, but for my department, for my university, for my community, for the nation—even the whole world. Ask these questions to yourself in order to align your strategy, and keep in mind, a large percentage of science is failure, but then you learn from it. Seek out progress, not just success.”

The outcome of this pilot program was made successful by Ahmed’s commitment and drive, the welcoming atmosphere of scientific collaborators, faculty, and staff, and the necessary funding from DOE’s WDTS. The dedication and collaboration of everyone involved has helped pave the way for a new semester VFP offered by WDTS in the coming year.

“The vision we have had in OEP is to offer programs that drive diversity in the workforce and facility user community through faculty seeking a long-term relationship with the lab,” said White. “This program has given us another tool for success in this regard.”

Brookhaven National 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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