Oppenheimer Fellows to Gain Broader View of National Labs

NEWPORT NEWS, VA – Two physicists at the Department of Energy’s Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility have been selected as fellows for distinguished Oppenheimer Science and Energy Leadership Program (OSELP), considered the highest honor for leadership training among national labs.

Nuclear physicist Douglas Higinbotham, operations director for the lab’s physics division, and accelerator physicist Mike Spata, deputy associate director of accelerator operations, research and development, have joined 29 other individuals from all 17 national laboratories across the country as the 2024 cohort of the program designed to cultivate and retain talented leaders. 

Both consider the competitive OSELP fellowship an exciting opportunity to build on their current knowledge and expertise and gain a broader view of DOE and the expansive national laboratory system.

“For the 30-some years I’ve been involved in Jefferson Lab, I’ve been focused on the lab’s mission, and this is an opportunity to really look up and see the entire national lab complex and how it all fits together,” Higinbotham said. “How these labs that all have their own niche, different aspects of the scientific mission, and how they go together — which is really important as you get to the higher levels of management.”

“Going into this, I’ve had a good understanding of the national lab system in general, but I’ve not spent a lot of time at other national labs,” Spata said. “This is going to be an opportunity to see much, much more.”

Oppenheimer fellows 

OSELP was established in 2016 to provide exceptional leaders the chance to explore the complexities, challenges and opportunities within DOE and its national labs. Candidates from a range of professional backgrounds are nominated by laboratory directors, and fellows are chosen by the National Laboratory Directors’ Council.

“OSELP is a very unique program that intentionally exposes participants to the full breadth of the DOE mission through the lens of its work at the national labs,” said Jefferson Lab Director Stuart Henderson. “This, coupled with the opportunity to engage with senior leaders within the department and across the national lab complex, gives the participants a very powerful experience and one that is important for our present and future leaders.”

Program goals and activities offer:

  • Informational site visits, presentations and tours at other national labs.
  • An advanced, system-level understanding of the strengths, challenges and dynamic nature of the DOE-lab system.
  • Mentorships on career development, diversity, equity and inclusion.
  • The ability to critically assess the DOE-lab system through candid dialogues with senior leadership and through strategic, meaningful year-end think-pieces.
  • A supportive and growing network of exceptional professionals who have the potential to contribute significantly to DOE, national labs, academia and industry. 

Already, Higinbotham and Spata have together or individually visited Ames National Laboratory in Iowa, Savannah River National Laboratory in South Carolina, Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington. 

Other DOE site visits will include SLAC National Accelerator Lab in California, Sandia National Laboratories and Los Alamos National Laboratory, both in New Mexico, and the National Energy Technology Laboratory, which is located in multiple states. 

Inspired by fascinating history 

Spata is especially interested in the Oak Ridge and Los Alamos visits for their association with the Manhattan Project, the highly secretive U.S.-led effort during World War II that developed the atomic bomb. 

“I’ve always been fascinated by the history of the national labs,” Spata said. “At Oak Ridge, we toured some of the facilities that were part of the Manhattan Project. We’re seeing history — and, of course, we’re seeing all of the new technologies and facilities.”

The popularity of this year’s Oscar-winning film “Oppenheimer” has enhanced the public recognition of the Oppenheimer fellowship, named for J. Robert Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist who led the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. Oppenheimer is popularly known today as the “father of the atomic bomb.”

“Anybody that I speak to about the fellowship, they have this movie in context,” Spata said. “So everyone’s very excited.” 

Pursuing physics

Originally from Staten Island, New York, Spata studied physics and astronomy at Stony Brook University on Long Island, where he provided operations and upgrade support for the university’s 9 MV Tandem Van de Graaff heavy ion injector and 14 MeV/q superconducting linear accelerator.

“What fascinated me most was just the devices, themselves,” Spata said. “Just being around accelerators and all the technology and science and thinking about building them, constructing them, maintaining them and operating them is fascinating to me.”

He earned a physics degree from Stony Brook in 1990 and graduate degrees from Old Dominion University in Norfolk in 2008 and 2012. 

In 1989, he joined the years-long effort at Jefferson Lab to design, build and commission its world-class Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility (CEBAF). CEBAF is a DOE Office of Science user facility that currently enables the research of more than 1,900 nuclear physicists worldwide.

In the ensuing decades, he has served as the operations group leader for CEBAF, as project manager for the 12 GeV CEBAF Upgrade project (which doubled its energy), and as director of the lab’s Center for Advanced Studies of Accelerators.

A lifelong Virginian, Higinbotham was first drawn to physics by a high school teacher in his hometown of Lexington. 

“I was really intrigued about the workings of the natural world — and the nucleus, in particular,” he said.

He earned physics degrees at William & Mary in Williamsburg and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville before pursuing postdoctoral work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

 He first arrived at Jefferson Lab as an intern in 1993 before returning in 1999 as a postdoc. He was hired as a staff scientist in 2001. His research focuses on understanding nucleons in the nucleus and the size and structure of the proton.

He has served as spokesman for a total of 18 experiments at Jefferson Lab, and he was the corresponding author of the lab’s first article in the journal “Science.”

He has served as director of Jefferson Lab’s Electron-Ion Collider research group, and he is now the physics division’s management liaison to the accelerator division.


Jefferson Science Associates, LLC, manages and operates the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, or Jefferson Lab, for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. JSA is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Southeastern Universities Research Association, Inc. (SURA).

DOEs 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, visit https://energy.gov/science.

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