The start of 2023 sees the end of an era in ATAP as one of the stalwarts of science communication for the Lab, Science Writer & Editor Joe Chew, retires after a 34-year career spent principally in ATAP and its predecessor, the Accelerator and Fusion Research Division.
Throughout his long and distinguished career at the Lab, Joe earned a reputation as the go-to-person for all language-related issues (and frontline IT support as well). He was highly respected for the quality of his writing and for always being there to support others—whether in helping to edit scientific papers, assisting with major proposals, or casting his expert editorial eye over press releases, articles, and other communiques issued by the Lab.
Above all, as his many erstwhile colleagues attest, Joe was an incredible person to work with. He had a wonderful sense of humour, often reflected in the post-it notes variously affixed around the lab. He will be sorely missed by all those fortunate enough to have worked with him, and particularly by those lucky enough to have sampled the delicious home-made salsas he often brought in.
As his remarkable career comes to an end, he has graciously agreed to three questions …
For over three decades you’ve written about the accomplishments of Berkeley Lab. In this time, what have been the highlights/stand-out moments for you?
Although none of the four I’ve witnessed have anything to do directly with me, or ATAP, I must say that the announcement of a Nobel Prize is an incomparable event for the whole Lab. There is electricity in the air all day.
For the most part, though, my career was made up more of trends than specific moments. The increasing importance of light sources was an important part of my early days, and continues to this day with the ALS-Upgrade. Fusion energy research of the kinds that we did went through some hard times, but the spark never went out, and now there are interesting new prospects. Some of them come from a means of acceleration that had been mooted, and the physics worked out, but was just starting to be developed: laser-plasma acceleration. In magnets, and in controls and instrumentation, things that were hard to imagine back then are near-term prospects and even deployable realities now. The first particle accelerators may have been invented more than 90 years ago, but it is anything but a staid and settled field. These are tremendously exciting times in what ATAP does.
Not all of the things I’ve witnessed were positive developments. Federal cancellation of the Superconducting Super Collider was a huge disappointment for the entire field—being involved in some of the efforts to wind down the effort was rather poignant—and the decision to shut down rather than upgrade the Bevalac left some good work scrambling for new homes in addition to having a big impact on our division. For the most part, though, there’s been progress everywhere you look.
Safety has been another big trend. One of the biggest events in my career came early: the “Tiger Team” inspections, a transformative change that began with certain labs in the weapons complex and rapidly spread throughout DOE. There was grumbling at the time, as one might imagine, but we approach the planning and conduct of work in a fundamentally different and better way now.
Explicit attention to diversity and inclusion has been another very positive trend. Besides being the morally right thing to do, it helps the substance of our efforts. Monocultures are inherently limited; making people different than us feel welcome is a first step toward having ideas we wouldn’t have had otherwise. And with the challenges the world is facing, humankind will need to make the most of every brain we can get.
Over your 34 years of service to the Lab, what are your thoughts on the changes you have seen?
It’s a lot bigger, for one thing, and although it’s always had one of the most diverse research portfolios in the DOE complex, a lot of the expansion has occurred in areas that were nascent (if they existed at all) or fairly small when I started here. Yet our founding legacy of particle accelerators, and developing and using them through team science, remain core strengths.
One of the biggest changes is something we see throughout society, but it’s especially beneficial in research — the spectacular advances in computing. It touches everything that we do in science, and with the advent of machine learning and artificial intelligence and data science and quantum information systems, we’re just getting started. Becoming the new home for NERSC and ESNet in the mid-90s, and continually bolstering the expertise to take advantage of these capabilities, looks now like one of the best strategic moves the Lab ever made.
In my own field, the advent of the Web and popular adoption of the Internet have been transformative, and through a bit of good fortune I got in on the ground floor. It’s easy to reach out to audiences that were physically and financially beyond us in the print-only days, and people looking for information can find us (or anything else about science) with a few clicks. The information is fresher, too, when it isn’t tied to production cycles and mailing.
There’s something immensely satisfying about a quality print document, and we still produce them when that’s the best tool for the job, but for conveying what we’re doing in the most effective way to the most people, this was a game changer.
One thing that hasn’t changed: the Lab is a destination employer for top people in both research and support roles. I’ve been privileged to be surrounded by leaders at the state of the art for decades, and when I talk with the students and postdocs and young staff members just starting their journey, I feel that the future is in good hands.
What advice would you give to other science writers and communicators?
At a national lab especially, you’re surrounded by experts—get out of your office and spend time with them often and at length. Get the facts straight and put them into perspective. Be engaging, but beware of both cleverness for its own sake and using hyperbolic language to create forced enthusiasm; the inherent interest and importance of the subject matter can carry a science and technology story, and usually should. And especially if (as in my case) long-form writing is your comfort zone in a world that is tending toward shorter messages, keep a sense of when to write a concluding paragraph and start working on something else.