A ‘Maverick’ Quantum Innovator Returns to Research
As Thomas Schenkel steps down from his interim directorship to devote full time to research and leadership of our Fusion Science and Ion Beam Technology Program, he leaves a legacy of progress in our traditional programs as well as new crosscutting efforts in quantum information sciences, artificial intelligence and machine learning.
“I have always been attracted to the idea of the scientist as a maverick who likes to learn and try new things”
Thomas’s diverse research interests included the hardware foundations of an approach to quantum computing with spin qubits, as well as the application of special qubit materials in areas of quantum sensing and the development of novel spin resonance techniques. He was chair of an Office of Fusion Energy workshop on the synergies of quantum computing with fusion energy sciences, and served as one of the Lab’s points of contact for DOE’s first Quantum Internet Blueprint Workshop.
Thomas led a Berkeley Lab team in a multi-institutional study revisiting cold fusion, an effort funded by Google. He is Berkeley Lab principal investigator in a project with Cornell University that is developing an unprecedentedly compact and inexpensive multi-beam ion accelerator, based on technologies familiar from the electronics and microfabrication industries, to accelerate many low-current beams in parallel.
His tenure as Interim Director since January 2019 was notable for progress at the BELLA Center as well. He was the key figure in bringing LaserNetUS to Berkeley Lab. With his background in ion beam technology, he was a natural proponent of ion acceleration with BELLA and now serves as principal investigator of the project, now underway, to build a beamline that provides tightly focused, high-intensity laser beams for it.
As the Laboratory and the entire DOE complex cast about for ways to use their expertise to address the pandemic, Thomas helped launch a pilot study that uses BELLA’s lasers to examine the structure and components of viruses like the one causing COVID-19, and how viruses interact with their surrounding environment.
Very favorable reviews of BELLA operations from the Laboratory Director and DOE during his interim directorship affirmed the BELLA Center’s near-term directions and helped set the stage for the proposed kBELLA.
Meanwhile he emphasized synergies among state-of-the-art ATAP efforts in superconducting magnets, accelerator controls and instrumentation, accelerator modeling, and support for the Advanced Light Source and design of its future upgrade.
Thomas also brought a deeply humane management style and personality to this job. He is a champion of both ideas and IDEA, and his interests extend throughout physics and beyond; a chance encounter with him in the coffee nook (back when we could do that) might touch upon the fine arts or philosophy as well as on science and technology. It was a combination that proved well suited to the unprecedented challenge of the pandemic.
“There was no playbook for doing lab research when the few people who are allowed to come in at any given time have to stay six feet apart,” recalls BELLA Center Director Eric Esarey.” “We were all learning as we went along, and Thomas was imaginative and supportive about how to meet this challenge.”
“Thomas’s years as Interim Director leave us with vibrant scientific programs throughout the Division, healthy budgets, forward-looking strategies, a strong safety culture, and most of all, high morale despite a year of the pandemic,” says Cameron Geddes, who takes over as permanent ATAP Director. “I’d like to thank him for his service to the Division and the Laboratory, and look forward to many years of his innovative ideas.”