Thomas Schenkel, a senior scientist who heads the Fusion Science & Ion Beam Technology Program at Berkeley Lab’s Accelerator Technology & Applied Physics (ATAP) Division, has taken up a temporary role at the U.S. Government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

“I am very excited to be working at DARPA,” says Schenkel, “and it presents a wonderful opportunity to broaden my knowledge and skill set and develop new relationships and collaborations that will also benefit the Lab.”

Founded in 1958, DARPA was created to “make pivotal investments in breakthrough technologies for national security.” The agency has indeed been pivotal in many of today’s technologies. It is renowned for funding “revolutionary” ideas, many extending beyond military applications into consumer electronics, telecommunications, and computing. These include the ARPANET, the basis for today’s Internet, automated voice recognition and language translation, and Global Positioning System receivers small enough to fit in mobile devices.

Schenkel will join DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office (DSO) as a program manager. The appointment is part of the Intergovernmental Personnel Act Mobility Program, which allows for the temporary assignment of skilled personnel between the Federal Government and state and local governments, Indian tribal governments, colleges and universities, funded research and development centers, and other eligible organizations.

“As a DSO program manager,” he explains, “I will identify and initiate new research spanning a range of science and engineering fields to transform them into state-of-the-art technologies for applications in national security.”

The posting, he notes, will be an initial two-year contract and could be extended for a further two years.

(l) Arun Persaud, staff scientist and deputy head of FS&IBT, and Thomas Schenkel, working on the Associated Particle Imaging technique. (Credit: Thor Swift/Berkeley Lab)

Schenkel joined the Lab in 2000, working as a physicist in the Accelerator & Fusion Research Division (now called ATAP). In 2013, he was appointed program head of the Fusion Science & Ion Beam Technology Division (a role he continues to hold). He was the deputy division director for technology in ATAP from 2017-2019 and was then appointed interim director, a position he held from 2019-2021. Before joining the Lab, he conducted postdoctoral research in the Chemistry & Materials Science Department at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. He has a Diploma in Physics and a Ph.D. in Physics from Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany.

He says Berkeley Lab provided him with “scientific expertise, leadership and research management skills, and a broad network of researchers, all of which I will bring to my role at DARPA.” These skills, he adds, will “help me to identify and drive innovative research that is aligned with DARPA’s strategy of ‘making high-risk, high-return investments.’”

The good news for the ATAP and his many colleagues and research collaborators is that Schenkel will retain a position in the division at a reduced level, where he will continue to lead many of the projects he initiated while at the Lab. This research includes developing photo-emitting defects (called color centers) in materials such as diamond and silicon. These color centers show promise for creating qubits and could one day form the backbone of a quantum internet. He is also leading research on rare nuclear reaction processes at low energies. Funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, the work could provide new insights into the fundamental science of nuclear processes at relatively low reaction energies, potentially leading to new sensing and energy research applications.

“Although I will focus on my new role at DARPA, I’m lucky to have ‘my cake and eat it, too’ by retaining a position in ATAP,” says Schenkel. “I plan to bring the culture of team science at Berkeley Lab to the agency while also taking a new perspective of the ‘big picture’ from DARPA back to the Lab. It’s a win-win scenario for both sides.”



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