A celebration of Black History Month at Argonne

BYLINE: Andrea Manning, Michael Kooi, Anna Marie Tomczyk

Newswise — Profiles of six employees and one up-and-coming high school STEM student show how a diverse team drives Argonne’s science mission forward.

Advances in science and technology at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory take place thanks to contributions from the many individuals making up its diverse workforce.

In celebration of Black History Month, Argonne is shining a spotlight on a few of these contributors — and they are shining right back! These individuals, through their roles and responsibilities at Argonne, are pursuing, causing and directing outcomes at the laboratory. Their efforts are reaching their broader science and professional disciplines and beyond — to elevate us all.

Sean L. Jones, Deputy Laboratory Director for Science and Technology

Sean Jones came to Argonne last October as the laboratory’s new deputy laboratory director for science and technology. He is Argonne’s chief research officer and its senior science strategist and advisor.

Assuming this role at Argonne was the culmination of career achievements that have included being awarded nine U.S. patents and being recognized as an industry expert in luminescent materials and the fabrication of optical waveguides.

Before joining Argonne, Sean served as the assistant director for the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) $1.6 billion directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences, where he stewarded multidisciplinary science centers, user facilities and research programs in the domains of astronomy, physics, chemistry and materials science.

Sean’s scientific education was fostered by supportive parents and mentors while growing up in Orangeburg, South Carolina. His father was a physicist, and his mother was a speech pathologist and college professor. They instilled in him the importance of excellence, regardless of race, color or creed. He also learned about resilience, fairness and the importance of education.

He was in fifth grade when his parents gave him a chemistry set, which was pivotal to setting his trajectory in science. ​“That was a ​‘STEM spark’ moment for me,” he says, ​“when science became real, tangible and accessible. I was sold.”

He added: ​“But it was my experience in an undergraduate engineering lab fabricating, characterizing and testing an yttrium barium copper oxide (YBCO123) superconducting sample that sealed my interest in pursuing a Ph.D. The challenges in the lab to make real new materials were fascinating, and I fell in love with basic research.”

He earned his bachelor’s degree in ceramic engineering from Clemson University and his master’s and doctoral degrees in materials science and engineering from the University of Florida.

Sean first heard about Argonne through colleagues who did research at the Advanced Photon Source (APS), a DOE Office of Science user facility. Then, while he was at the NSF, he became very familiar with Argonne facilities and researchers, even funding several of the instruments at the APS, including ChemMatCARS, an instrument that does advanced characterization of materials and chemical structures. When he saw an opening for a science and technology leadership position at Argonne, he was intrigued by the possibility of joining a national laboratory with a mission that encompasses a broad swath of basic and applied science research.

Sean now works with Argonne Laboratory Director Paul Kearns, the lab’s chief operating officer, and the associate laboratory directors to implement a lab-wide science strategy and further develop Argonne’s $1.1 billion multidisciplinary science and technology portfolio. This portfolio encompasses 21 research divisions, six national scientific user facilities and over 1,700 research and technical staff.

In his first few months at Argonne, he has been immersed in the lab’s culture, which encourages employees to be respectful, inclusive and collaborative as well as to embrace teamwork. He looks forward to working with the lab’s leadership and employees to continue to shape an even more inclusive environment. For Black History Month, in addition to taking part in Argonne events, he plans to again read A Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. by Peter Holloran, Clayborne Carson and Martin Luther King Jr.

“This month is really American history month, because African Americans have embraced and contributed richly to the fabric of America,” Sean notes. ​“We are reminded by the incidences in our society over recent years as to why it is so important to have Black History Month — to remember our trials and triumphs of adding to the culture and science heritage of this country. I hope we get to a place of celebrating African American scientists and our contributions all year long.”

Nadine Lacombe, General Counsel, Legal Department

As general counsel, Nadine Lacombe is Argonne’s chief legal counsel. She brought more than 25 years of experience as an attorney to the lab when she arrived in 2023, working across legal disciplines and representing a range of private- and public-sector clients.

This includes a depth of experience gained on the staffs of several government agencies, including the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) of northeastern Illinois, the Illinois Department of Central Management Services and the Illinois Department of Transportation. At the RTA, she worked with fellow transit agencies — the CTA, Metra and PACE systems — on a variety of system-wide legal matters.

Nadine has made difficult choices throughout her career. One such example unfolded while she was working at a business that refused to feature an openly gay colleague’s U.S. Supreme Court legal work on behalf of an LGBTQ+ advocacy organization. When submitted for posting on a company site that featured accomplishments, the work was deemed ​“unsuitable.”

Nadine interceded, but management wouldn’t budge, even though the company had approved her colleague’s work. After that episode, Nadine declined a new role that would have intentionally downplayed the diversity aspects of her work. She eventually landed with another firm, saying of the experience, ​“I feel better about myself as a lawyer and a person, in hindsight, for doing what was consistent with my values.”

Nadine became the first Black woman to be the RTA’s general counsel, a position she held for more than 10 years. Then, she was encouraged to apply for an opening at Argonne. She said it was ​“a no-brainer moment,” given that she had focused on the sciences as an undergraduate, earning a Bachelor of Science from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and then her Juris Doctor from the University of Michigan.

“I was always fascinated by the biological sciences, and more recently, by AI and other legal issues stemming from technological advances,” she says. ​“My parents instilled a profound love of mathematics and science, so practicing law at Argonne really is a perfect fit.”

Since joining Argonne, Nadine has also developed a deep respect for her clients’ research and for the legal team. ​“They’re supportive colleagues and highly skilled professionals who care about the lab’s mission,” she said.

Among others, she considers her parents and grandparents her heroes. She has a strong appreciation for their resilience as immigrants from Haiti to the U.S. and France, where Nadine was born.

“I know firsthand how challenging it is to learn and work across cultures and languages,” Nadine says, noting that many at the lab share that history.

During Black History Month, Nadine plans a special dinner with friends, featuring foods of her heritage and those of others, aiming to honor her parents and grandparents.

She has a complicated relationship with Black History Month, a dynamic she described in a 2018 blog post, noting that, ​“Our contributions to this country and to the world are far too vast to be relegated to a single month… but Black History Month still matters.”

Sixbert Picard Muhoza, Walter Massey Fellow, Applied Materials division

Many of us might cringe at the thought of having two math teachers for parents, but Sixbert Picard Muhoza relished it — except for when his grades fell short of expectations. ​“My parents would make me study during school vacations if my grade dropped in a class,” he recalls.

That didn’t happen often. In fact, Sixbert performed well in school and earned a presidential scholarship from the government of his native Rwanda in 2010 to attend college in the U.S. At the time, he was considering a career in medicine. But that changed when he arrived here.

“Listening to popular science talks by leading figures like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Greene and Bill Nye opened my eyes to the other real-life impacts you can make through science — beyond medicine,” he recalls. ​“In particular, green technologies like whole-home batteries and solar roofs really captured my attention. That’s when I realized that I wanted to work on developing innovative new energy technologies like those.”

He has done exactly that since earning his Ph.D. in Materials Chemistry from Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His Ph.D. research focused on developing and preserving nanomaterials at high temperatures and integrating them into fuel cells that can replace less powerful and/or fossil-fuel-based grid technologies.

While at Argonne, he most recently participated in a project focused on converting carbon dioxide into formaldehyde. The ability to convert carbon dioxide into commercially useful materials is critical to the viability of carbon capture technologies that aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Each year, Sixbert marks Black History Month by learning about trailblazers from the past. One of his first subjects was Walter Massey, the first African American to serve as the laboratory director at Argonne and the namesake of the fellowship that Sixbert was awarded in 2022.

Looking forward, Sixbert plans to continue his focus on developing green technologies that can slow climate change. He also wants to help expand the science and research ecosystem back in Rwanda.

It’s a long way from teaching math, as his parents did, or practicing medicine, his original intent, noble as both paths are. But, as he well recognizes, that’s how new history gets made.

Justin H.S. Breaux, Digital Social Media Producer and Analyst, Communications and Public Affairs division

Justin H.S. Breaux got the advocacy ​“bug” in earnest during Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign in 2008.

“People often don’t understand the change that’s needed [in this world], because they have other stuff going on,” he says. ​“So, the idea that we can stop and recognize that — and then put our energy into making the world a better place — motivated me.”

In 2012, Justin brought his advocacy bug with him to Argonne, where he helps drive Argonne’s science missions. He started as a part-time science writer, working with researchers to translate their groundbreaking yet often difficult-to-understand work into stories that the public can easily understand.

From there, he moved to social media, where he manages Argonne’s four primary social media channels. These reach more than 100,000 followers, and he generates nearly 3,000 posts per year.

While managing these channels, Justin quickly realized the critical importance of data to their success. Taking on the role of data analyst across all Argonne’s communications platforms, he became an ardent advocate for using data to make better decisions regarding how to maximize the impact of those communications.

“The data generated by all of our platforms — web, social, newsletters, media, publications — gives us insight into how people engage with us,” he explains. ​“It tells us what content people are consuming and how. It helps us understand the impact we are getting for the tax dollars we spend. And it helps us ensure that the people we want to reach can connect with us and get the information they need.”

Justin’s energy for advocacy also extends to the Argonne African American Employee Resource Group (AAA-ERG), which he now leads. During his time with AAA-ERG, it has catalyzed Argonne’s reconnection to the National GEM Consortium, which provides a direct pipeline of diverse talent to Argonne career opportunities.

The AAA-ERG also helped to establish the Walter Massey Fellowship, honoring Argonne’s first African American director. And it advocated strongly for a DEIA assessment of Argonne’s hiring and retention practices and performance regarding African Americans. It was the first time ever that a national laboratory had hired a third party to conduct such an assessment.

For Justin, Black History Month provides an opportunity to connect with colleagues and reflect on the contributions of African Americans to U.S. history.

“We have shaped this country’s history from its very beginning, and our impact will persist,” he says. ​“The same is true here, where we are part of the Argonne tapestry, and where our contributions are just as profound.”

Renée Skeete, Community Partnerships and Grants Lead, Office of Community Engagement

Renée Skeete’s objective is to foster and launch mutually beneficial collaborations on her watch as community partnerships and grants lead at Argonne’s Office of Community Engagement (OCE).

At Argonne, these partnerships become possible when research teams and stakeholder organizations come together on scientific efforts that will benefit a community’s wider goals.

Because expertise does not reside exclusively with research teams, she emphasizes the strengths that community-based organizations bring to these partnerships. ​“Access to the amazing scientific knowledge the laboratory produces, and funding to become collaborators in that work, are important to both address environmental harms and invest in the future-focused, climate resilience solutions that community-based organizations are already working on.”

Among the OCE’s newer staff members, Renée joined Argonne in September 2023. The OCE itself is a newer Argonne office, having been established in early 2023. It operates in two locations: the Argonne in Chicago office within the Hyde Park community on Chicago’s South Side and Argonne’s main campus in Lemont, Illinois.

Renée roughly divides her time between the Argonne in Chicago office and the lab’s main campus. ​“Working at the lab gives me the opportunity to meet with scientists, and working at Argonne in Chicago gives me the opportunity to meet with community partners to collaborate with those scientists.”

Prior to joining Argonne, Renée spent three years at ComEd in its engineering department. That’s where she became familiar with Argonne through collaborations on funding opportunities and other research projects, including the 2022 Climate Risk and Adaptation Study.

Renée pursued her graduate studies at Georgia State University for her master’s and doctoral degrees in sociology. Her concentration was in Race and Urban Studies, with a focus on housing and the built environment. Leaning toward applied work rather than an academic career, she ended up finding career opportunities through professional organizations such as the Urban Affairs Association and the American Planning Association.

While completing her doctorate, she became an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education research fellowship participant at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, building interest in climate and sustainability through her work on built environment approaches to improving public health. That’s how she had ended up in ComEd’s Engineering department despite not being an engineer.

“Joining Argonne was an opportunity to lean back into my identity as a scientist,” she said. ​“My sense of urgency about sustainability and equity is fueled by my academic research on disadvantaged neighborhoods and my ancestry in the Caribbean and South America, where climate change impacts are alarming, accelerating and disproportionate to the region’s greenhouse gas emissions.”

Contemporary inspirations include Dr. Tony Reames, Dr. Fayola Jacobs and Dr. Ashanté Reese. Two other towering inspirations are W.E.B Du Bois, an early sociologist, eminent scholar and thinker, and a pioneer in data visualization; and Ida B. Wells — one reason that Renée was excited to come to Chicago was to live where Ms. Wells had worked.

At Argonne, Renée can perform the functions she loved best in previous work — creating partnerships, working on interdisciplinary teams and finding resources to support underfunded work in marginalized communities.

She thus sees her role as one of translation: as a point person identifying what’s relevant to the researchers and to the community organizations. Although the OCE is in its infancy, she wisely observes, ​“We’re never really starting from scratch. The beauty of working in an interdisciplinary environment is that there is always something to build from, even if it comes from a different area of expertise. It’s an exciting time to be doing this work.”

Leighanne C. Gallington, Beamline Scientist, Advanced Photon Source

From her vantage point at Sector 1 at the APS, Beamline Scientist Leighanne Gallington appreciates her panoramic view of the science that she is conducting, supporting and shaping.

As a member of the X-ray Science division’s Materials Physics and Engineering group, Leighanne supports outside users who visit Argonne from all over the world. ​“The scientists who come to the APS are experts in their fields. Some are also knowledgeable about X-ray experimental techniques, but others (especially graduate students) are less familiar with what we can deploy at the APS to help them test their hypotheses. That’s where I step in.”

This knack for probing materials properties at the APS actually began when she was pursuing her doctorate at Georgia Tech: her focus was on studying negative thermal expansion materials, which shrink when heated — the opposite of most materials. With one family of these materials, zirconium tungstate, Leighanne’s question was: What happens if we also apply pressure?

But answering that question required more powerful X-rays than available at a regular laboratory, so Leighanne found herself at the APS, where she discovered new behaviors and an alternate phase in the material — findings that were not in the existing literature — and she published her results.

During several trips to the APS to obtain the measurements for these studies, she also helped fellow students on their experiments. As she closed in on finishing her Ph.D., she found and applied for a postdoc opening at Argonne and was hired in 2015. Leighanne transitioned to full-time staff in 2018, and now works on many engineering-based problems at Sector 1.

In fact, one large team’s experiment exemplifies her contributions in her current role. This team’s project involved enhancing the performance of catalysts, which are active at their surfaces only.

Leighanne realized that their planned method would drive the test materials to less-optimal areas of the catalyst’s structure, where the experiment would deliver less catalytic ​“bang for the buck.” She demonstrated this outcome directly to the research team using experimental techniques available at the beamline; density functional theory later confirmed the underlying mechanism. For this kind of expertise and active engagement, Leighanne has been acknowledged as a co-author by a number of research teams using the APS.

Throughout what she describes as the ​“winding path” of her science career, Leighanne credited her parents as her heroes.

Her father, an electrical engineer, modeled tenacity: before starting at MIT, he leapt into its Interphase Preparatory Program, attending every office hour available and excelling once he started regular classes, also inspiring Leighanne’s undergraduate studies at MIT.

Her mother, now a highly regarded investigator of complaints against attorneys for the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers, made many sacrifices. These included enabling Leighanne and her brothers to participate in numerous extracurricular academic programs, as well as the METCO program, a voluntary school integration initiative in Massachusetts.

Together, her parents ensured that she stayed challenged in high school at the Boston Latin School, Benjamin Franklin’s alma mater, where she graduated as a Franklin medal awardee and was usually the only African American student in her classes.

All of these opportunities have helped Leighanne build out a substantial network, an asset that ​“so many blacks and underrepresented minorities simply don’t have.”

Leighanne’s myriad experiences highlight her effectiveness in her current role. And the payback? ​“I get to see the whole spectrum of science and the many other scientific problems that people are trying to solve.”

Chandler Brady, Student, Argonne/ACT-SO High School Research Program

Talk about being fast out of the gate! Chandler Brady wasted no time launching his high school career in a big way. As a freshman at Timothy Christian High School in Elmhurst, Illinois, Chandler competed in the NAACP’s Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics (ACT-SO) competition, winning in the Chemistry/Biochemistry category at the national-level competition in Boston last July of 2023.

The competition spans the entire academic year, so Chandler began researching his project — creating a Python program to predict the potency of anesthetics — in September 2022.

The motivation for his project? ​“When I was six or seven, my dad needed to have surgery. He told me about anesthesiology, how it would keep him safe from feeling any pain. From then on, I became curious about it.”

He had some experience with coding thanks to a game his mom gave him called Bitsbox. Then, through ACT-SO in his freshman year, he worked with his mentor, Dr. Jaeyoung Cho, formerly of Argonne, who helped him learn the basics of using Python for his project.

Predicting potency for his project involved making many different kinds of anesthetics machine-readable by converting them to a SMILES string, a simplified molecular input line entry system. After converting them to SMILES, he was able to look at similarities between them using what’s called a Morgan fingerprint. Then he was able to predict their potency in his Python program.

The local competition took place in March 2023 at Lewis University in Romeoville, Illinois. Upon winning gold there, Chandler automatically qualified to compete at the nationals in Boston. He took advantage of the lead time before the nationals in July to do even more research to advance and strengthen his project’s impact.

Besides the experience of winning in Boston, Chandler appreciated that the ACT-SO organizers devoted time for the students to talk to each other, start to bond and network. There was also a college fair.

Now in his sophomore year, he is halfway through this year’s ACT-SO season. In this year’s competition, he’s branching off from last year’s project, now studying how to use machine learning to design new kinds of anesthesia. Because the effects are unique to each person, new kinds could be more personalized, with less worry about side effects.

His Argonne mentor this year is Dr. Archit Vasan, a postdoctoral appointee in the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility, a DOE Office of Science user facility, who’s helping with the machine learning piece. Chandler says, ​“Argonne mentors have given outstanding research guidance and insights for my projects as well as access to state-of-the-art facilities. Argonne has provided wonderful material and lab space to support countless ACT-SO STEM students.”

Science and math are some of the subjects he has excelled in from a young age. He is now thriving in his first chemistry class, saying, ​“I’m a hands-on learner. I like the process of learning how things work, coming up with questions, and trying to answer my own questions. I have enjoyed this research and exposure to these topics since my freshman year.”

His hero is Dr. Emery Brown, a neuroscientist and anesthesiologist whose work addresses emergence time, or the process of waking up from anesthesia, as well as how to shorten that time and study the effects. Chandler says that sitting down with Dr. Brown is on his bucket list so he can ​“discuss more with him about his background and what he thinks is feasible in this field.”

So, yes, he’s sticking with his dream of becoming an anesthesiologist — which he has known he wanted to be since age 12. ​“I’m interested in how it works with the nervous system, is affected by so many factors, and has to be calibrated to every individual.”

This year’s national competition will be in Las Vegas and held again in July. Odds are that Chandler will be bringing home the gold again, and we can all be rooting for him!

The Argonne Leadership Computing Facility provides supercomputing capabilities to the scientific and engineering community to advance fundamental discovery and understanding in a broad range of disciplines. Supported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science, Advanced Scientific Computing Research (ASCR) program, the ALCF is one of two DOE Leadership Computing Facilities in the nation dedicated to open science.

About the Advanced Photon Source

The U. S. Department of Energy Office of Science’s Advanced Photon Source (APS) at Argonne National Laboratory is one of the world’s most productive X-ray light source facilities. The APS provides high-brightness X-ray beams to a diverse community of researchers in materials science, chemistry, condensed matter physics, the life and environmental sciences, and applied research. These X-rays are ideally suited for explorations of materials and biological structures; elemental distribution; chemical, magnetic, electronic states; and a wide range of technologically important engineering systems from batteries to fuel injector sprays, all of which are the foundations of our nation’s economic, technological, and physical well-being. Each year, more than 5,000 researchers use the APS to produce over 2,000 publications detailing impactful discoveries, and solve more vital biological protein structures than users of any other X-ray light source research facility. APS scientists and engineers innovate technology that is at the heart of advancing accelerator and light-source operations. This includes the insertion devices that produce extreme-brightness X-rays prized by researchers, lenses that focus the X-rays down to a few nanometers, instrumentation that maximizes the way the X-rays interact with samples being studied, and software that gathers and manages the massive quantity of data resulting from discovery research at the APS.

This research used resources of the Advanced Photon Source, a U.S. DOE Office of Science User Facility operated for the DOE Office of Science by Argonne National Laboratory under Contract No. DE-AC02-06CH11357.

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s 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, visit https://​ener​gy​.gov/​s​c​ience.

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