Keys to Access: Argonne-INCREASE partnership opens doors to collaboration

facility accomplishment
INCREASE members visited Argonne to network and learn how to submit competitive proposals for their research.

Scientific solutions to global issues increasingly rely on the powerful facilities, tools and expertise located on national laboratory campuses.

Researchers at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and other minority-serving institutions (MSIs) may not have the same networks and access as others. Tucked away in academic silos, many lack direct connections to use these vital resources.

To address this gap in access to resources, the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE's) Argonne National Laboratory partnered with the Interdisciplinary Consortium for Research and Education and Access in Science and Engineering (INCREASE) organization this fall for a two-day workshop.

Some researchers have this idea that the only way to do the type of analysis they want to do is by dipping into their funding, but that's not true.

INCREASE is a volunteer-led organization formed seven years ago at DOE's Brookhaven National Laboratory; its members teach and conduct research at institutions whose student bodies are predominately African American, Hispanic or Native American. The organization facilitates connections between these researchers and those at DOE's national laboratories. Once these connections are made, the hope is that these new visitors become future collaborators.

Lacking access to world-class research tools limits the types of questions a cancer researcher or aerospace engineer can ask. This lack of access also limits their ability to inspire a new generation of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) professionals who are fully aware of the tools and networks available to them.

"It is really about creating a pipeline of partnerships that solve real problems," said Eric Sheppard, Dean of Engineering and Technology at Hampton University and INCREASE chair. "These partnerships have impacts beyond our MSIs since many minority students who go on to get their Ph.D.s at institutions like the University of Chicago or MIT get their bachelor's degrees at HBCUs and MSIs."

The workshop's goal was to increase the participation in and diversity of the user base at Argonne's scientific user facilities by providing awareness of tools freely available at national laboratories. Within tailored conversations about writing competitive proposals, INCREASE members and Argonne researchers also built direct connections.

Learning the ropes

Argonne's Educational Programs department teamed up with lab's user facility outreach communities to provide tours and insights into the Advanced Photon Source (APS), the Center for Nanoscale Materials, and the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility (ALCF), all DOE Office of Science User Facilities located at Argonne.

Discussing the practical applications of using cutting-edge techniques like X-ray spectroscopy, high-performance computing, or even nanofabrication and lithography to make greater impacts on their research, attendees also learned they could do all this while leaving their research funding virtually untouched.

"Some researchers have this idea that the only way to do the type of analysis they want to do is by dipping into their funding, but that's not true," said University of Chicago research scientist and workshop co-organizer Antonio Lanzirotti. "Often at no cost, DOE User Facilities give researchers the tools they need in order to publish good science in the open literature that benefits our global understanding."

With binders filled with wish lists of projects and tools to use, some visitors worried that the bar might be too high to work with a national laboratory. These worries quickly diminished with the realization that, more than tools, these facilities function as collaborative hubs to help them achieve their goals.

Starting with a series of questions at the ALCF's workshop, INCREASE members seem to have found more solutions when exploring barriers to using high-performance computing. Not limited to a specific generation of code or number of cores to use, the group was free to explore the possibilities of using ALCF resources to reduce their time to solution or increase the size and complexity of the problems they were exploring. 

Others came with ideas they wanted to pursue and left with even more. Sheppard came with plans to use small-angle X-ray scattering at the APS to study plasma thrusters and left with new collaborative ideas with other INCREASE members for a different aerospace project for the APS's beamline dedicated to fuel injection research.

"We at the APS are here to support the mission you are trying to accomplish," said Stephen Streiffer, associate laboratory director for photon sciences.  "We want to give you resources so that you can do things better than you could otherwise."

All in

The partnership between INCREASE and Argonne sets a firm foundation for growing the next generation of STEM professionals at MSIs. Educators exposed to DOE tools and resources in turn expose their students, allowing for a greater range of career options leading towards increased workforce diversity.

For Meridith Bruozas, Argonne's education manager, ensuring the inclusion of diverse viewpoints starts with making the STEM pipeline fair and equitable for all. Engaging communities outside Argonne through outreach programs focused on raising awareness is vital to this effort.

"We tend to see first-generation college-goers attending HBCUs and MSIs, so it's important that we engage them early and often about research and career opportunities," said Bruozas. "The fact is, we're tackling big scientific problems here and we need people from different backgrounds with different scientific curiosities to solve them."

As INCREASE continues its U.S. tour of DOE's national laboratories, critical mass and interest are growing. The organization has extended its outreach to include Hispanic-serving institutions and plans on growing connections with tribal communities. Growing this network makes a difference in the career prospects of a new generation of STEM professionals.

An engineer and manager of university relations and DOE internship programs at Brookhaven, Noel Blackburn sees increasing diversity as a matter of approach.

"It is all about how we approach the solution," says Blackburn. "The scientific community has been very successful in finding solutions by bringing together researchers from different disciplines. So why shouldn't we, as a community, extend that thinking to people of different cultural, gender and economic backgrounds? We can find diverse scientists and develop them."

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.