Art Champagne Ushers TUNL Through its Next Phase

Monday, November 20, 2017

UNC professor Art Champagne succeeded Duke professor Calvin Howell to become the director of the Triangle Universities Nuclear Laboratory (TUNL) in July 2016. Champagne is the William C. Friday Professor of Physics at UNC-Chapel Hill.

A year and a half after making the transition from TUNL faculty member to TUNL director, Champagne says, “It’s a different perspective. It’s nice to look and see what everyone is doing. It’s all really exciting stuff that we can point to with a great deal of pride not only here but nationally.”

Champagne has been at TUNL since 1990. At that time, the lab had one major accelerator laboratory: the tandem Van de Graaff. Today, TUNL has two additional accelerators: the Laboratory for Experimental Nuclear Astrophysics (LENA), which Champagne and others use to measure the rates of stellar nuclear reactions, and the High Intensity Gamma-Ray Source (HIGS), housed in a separate 52,000-square-foot building.

TUNL scientists also play leading roles in experiments in other locations including Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Los Alamos Neutron Science Center, and the MAJORANA Demonstrator in the Homestake Mine in South Dakota. This past year, the COHERENT experiment at Oak Ridge announced the first observation of coherent neutrino scattering. MAJORANA, which is looking for evidence that neutrinos are their own antiparticles, recently turned on and has achieved the lowest background level of any experiment of its type.

Champagne notes that TUNL is the only university nuclear laboratory with such a broad scope. In fact, it’s the only university lab doing work in each of the four broad areas outlined in the 2015 Long Range Plan for Nuclear Science, created by an advisory committee of the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation: quantum chromodynamics, nuclear structure and reactions, nuclear astrophysics, and fundamental symmetries and neutrinos.

Balancing the funding needs is a particular challenge for a lab with three accelerators—which are important parts of the national portfolio—and an extensive outside research program. Former director Calvin Howell says Champagne is well-suited for that challenge because of his long history with TUNL as a faculty member and as a world-class researcher who built and commissioned the LENA accelerator. “He walked into the job almost instinctively knowing how to optimize the balance,” Howell says. “From day zero, we knew and trusted his judgment and his commitment to TUNL.”

This fall, Champagne has had his hands full preparing for the DOE site visit in late November. He is also heading up the process of writing a new long-range strategic plan for TUNL. “It’s not just a wish list,” he explains, “but how we get there. What facilities do we want now and 10 years from now and how do we organize the lab so that we get the science that we’re after?” Among other goals, the plan will include a modest near-term upgrade of HIGS, with plans for a new facility further in the future.

The strategic plan will also address the lab’s administrative organization. Over the years, the breadth of TUNL’s work has grown organically. What was once a small accelerator lab is now something quite different. Champagne thinks it’s time to reorganize the administrative structure to better support the research. A first step in that direction was hiring TUNL’s first senior grants manager, June Tirpak.

Strategic planning is never easy, but it’s harder than ever in the current funding climate. The Department of Energy doesn’t yet have its budget, and key positions in DOE remained unfilled. “The funding picture nationally is really uncertain,” Champagne says. “That’s something that I do worry about.”

On the brighter side, TUNL is continuing to grow. In January 2018, Robert Janssens will join TUNL as the Edward G. Bilpuch Distinguished Professor in Physics at UNC (until then, he’s a visiting professor at UNC). Janssens is a former division director at Argonne National Lab and a world expert in nuclear structure.

TUNL is also adding another university to its consortium: North Carolina Central University, a historically black college and university. While physicists from NC Central have for many years worked and collaborated at TUNL—which was originally founded as a collaboration among Duke, UNC, and NC State—the new agreement makes it official. Champagne is particularly excited to welcome a new group of students to TUNL, many of them under-represented minorities. If TUNL can inspire some of Central’s students to pursue advanced degrees, it could help address the lack of diversity in physics. Champagne believes increased diversity will strengthen the field as a whole. “Different experiences, different outlooks, different ideas—that’s how you progress,” he says.

Art Champagne will deliver the Physics Department Colloquium on December 13, 2017. For a past article about Prof. Champagne, please see: New TUNL Direct Art Champagne Looks to the Future.

Mary-Russell Roberson is a freelance science writer who lives in Durham.