This is a continuing profile series on the directors of the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science user facilities. These scientists lead a variety of research institutions that provide researchers with the most advanced tools of modern science including accelerators, colliders, supercomputers, light sources and neutron sources, as well as facilities for studying the nano world, the environment, and the atmosphere.
Contributing Author Credit: Jo Napolitano is an associate at Argonne National Laboratory.
Meet the director:
Guy Savard, director of ATLAS, loves the problem-solving elements of his job. ATLAS – the Argonne Tandem Linac Accelerator System – is a Department of Energy Office of Science user facility located at Argonne National Laboratory. “I still enjoy the technical aspects of the work,” he said. “I love to think and plan and find elegant solutions to difficult problems.”
And users’ needs constantly evolve, he said.
“This is why we created upgrades such as CARIBU (Californium Rare Isotope Breeder Upgrade) that provide access to mass-separated neutron-rich isotope beams needed to better understand the formation of the heavier elements in the cosmos,” he said. “This upgrade is based on new ion manipulation techniques that we developed.”
Similarly, ATLAS is currently preparing for yet another upgrade: The N=126 factory will provide beams of even heavier neutron-rich isotopes that will be needed for the next generation of experiments.
“It is a constant back and forth with the science pushing the technology and the technology pushing the science,” Savard said.
The director’s background:
Savard was born in Drummondville, Canada, roughly half-way between Montreal and Quebec. The eldest of seven children, he was a curious youth who always wanted to know how things worked. His parents realized that their son was a budding scientist.
He earned both his bachelor’s degree and PhD in physics from McGill University, drawn to the logic and absoluteness of the field.
“Science involves much less interpretation than virtually anything else we humans do,” he said. “It’s much more rigid—but in a positive way. It has a universality that transcends boundaries. It does not matter what language you speak: E=mc2 is always E=mc2. And that is also true at the other end of the universe. It was true 13 billion years ago and if we ever encounter an alien civilization, the one thing we will have in common is E=mc2.”
Savard came to Argonne in 1997 as a scientist, thrilled to have earned a spot in a national laboratory.
“I was doing mass measurements on radioactive isotopes using a new technique we developed at CERN,” he said. “We captured these ions in an ion trap one at a time and could study the properties in the best possible condition. We could get very high precision this way, even with a few atoms.”
“This technique was initially applied to improving the precision to which some parameters of the Standard Model of particle physics could be determined,” Savard said.
“Over time, its applications evolved more toward astrophysics and nuclear structure questions,” he said. “The technical improvements to this system also led to the technologies behind CARIBU and the N=126 factory.”
Savard has spent much of his career developing ion manipulation techniques, striving for the most precise, sensitive and efficient way to study them as they hold the key to helping scientists understand the fundamentals of the universe.
“A lot of these isotopes play critical roles in astrophysics, in the creation of the elements themselves,” he said. “Isotopes are created in a fraction of a second during neutron star mergers or supernova explosions: Outside of that one moment, they do not exist in the universe. We use nuclear reaction to recreate them in the lab and study their properties. We need extraordinarily sensitive tools and techniques to do this.”
Such research allows us to better understand the formation of the elements necessary to create life, Savard said.
“The initial Big Bang created hydrogen, helium and a little bit of lithium,” he said. “All other elements that make up what surrounds us came from the processing of these initial elements in stars. These are the processes we are trying to understand.”
Savard’s initial curiosity about the world has never left him. In fact, it’s been passed on to his four children. All either work or plan to work in the sciences. Two are PhD candidates studying physics while another is an engineer. The youngest is an undergraduate majoring in computer science.
Savard is proud of their career choices but neither encouraged nor discouraged their paths, he said.
“I think they learned from me that in the sciences, you can enjoy going to work every day while also earning decent pay,” he said. “Clearly, they understood that I liked what I was doing.”
ATLAS is the world's first superconducting linear accelerator for heavy ions at energies best suited to study the properties of the nucleus, the core of matter, and the fuel of stars. ATLAS can provide beams of essentially all stable isotopes from hydrogen to uranium as well as a variety of radioactive beams, low-mass beams through its in-flight production program, and heavier neutron-rich isotopes from CARIBU. Thirty people run the facility, which hosts roughly 300 users annually.
Savard spends his mornings checking on the facility. “We want to make sure the users are happy each day before planning future projects,” he said. “We keep track of what works well, what does not, what are the most common points of failure and what additional capabilities could be added in the future.”
He also helps plan the running and maintenance schedules so the facility can keep delivering the large numbers of beamtime hours users need while also fitting in maintenance and minor upgrades needed to improve its efficiency.
In addition to his work as the ATLAS Director, Savard still conducts his own studies, trying to reverse engineer the conditions that must be present in an astrophysical event to create the elements scientists observe in the cosmos.
“This is a problem that requires a multi-front approach with many fields involved, including, potentially, nuclear physics, observational astrophysics and advanced computing,” he said.
Other experiments are meant to provide scientists with a greater understanding of the heaviest, man-made elements.
Best advice for a future director at ATLAS:
“The first advice would be, ‘Follow the science,’” Savard said. “The most important thing we do is generate new information and help inform the next generation of scientists. You need to keep moving forward and keep addressing new and interesting questions. If you don’t have interesting projects, you won’t attract young minds.”
Savard is proud of ATLAS’s active student and postdoctoral programs.
“We very strongly encourage the postdocs to start new studies,” he said. “We like them to lead programs early on. We do experiments here that are still of human size, not giant collaborations, and many of those are ideal for a postdoc to oversee. We let young people take leadership roles early on so they can learn all aspects of the work.”
In Fiscal Year 2019, ATLAS and the other user facilities welcomed 35,000 researchers – from academic, industry, and government laboratories in all 50 states and the District of Columbia – to perform new scientific research. For details on the DOE Office of Science User Facilities, go to User Facilities at a Glance.
Please go to Profiles of User Facilities Directors to read more articles on the directors for the Office of Science user facilities.
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 https://energy.gov/science.