Los Alamos National Laboratory
The Los Alamos National Laboratory, located in Los Alamos, N.M., was established as part of the Manhattan Project in 1943 for the sole purpose of creating the atomic bomb. Today the lab continues to use innovative science and technology to ensure the nation’s continued safety from nuclear attacks, and Miles Baron, Martha Zumbro, Robert Hardekopf, and Jackie Little are COSAM alumni involved in the effort.
Baron, who received his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in physics at Auburn, has worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory for 25 years. Baron moved to Los Alamos after finishing his doctorate, and he now works as a nuclear weapons designer and intelligence analyst.
Baron is a nationally renowned expert in a highly classified national security area. He is the recipient of many awards, and most recently he received the National Intelligence Medallion presented by James Clapper, director of U.S. National Intelligence. His unique skill set has made him a valuable asset throughout his career, serving as the X-4 team leader for the Reliable Replacement Warhead design effort, the team leader for several nuclear weapon teams, special advisor to the deputy director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, and on the Science Council for the assistant secretary for Defense Programs in the Department of Energy.
Baron said the education he received at Auburn and the dedication of his professors to furthering his education have been valuable to him throughout his career. While others spent Saturdays tailgating at football games, Baron said he studied in the basement of the physics building, giving him the discipline to work while others were playing.
“My professors took extra time to expand my education in areas that really interested me,” Baron said. “This individualized nature of my education included special topics classes in tensor analysis with Dr. Thaxton, electricity and magnetism with Dr. Budenstein, and electronics design and modeling with Dr. Kribel.”
Baron said the most challenging aspect of his work is trying to find more than one way to solve a problem to increase confidence in the results.
“Auburn gave me the tools to solve problems; more importantly Auburn taught me how to forge my own problem-solving tools because, as we all learn very quickly, real- world problems are not drawn from a textbook,” Baron said.
Zumbro holds a master’s degree in mathematics from Auburn and has worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory since 1977. After leaving Auburn, Zumbro went on to receive her doctorate in chemistry at Florida State University.
While working at Los Alamos, Zumbro has held a number of positions, including management roles for more than 10 years. She currently works as a deputy division leader of the Accelerator Operations and Technology, where she is responsible for 200 employees. The accelerator at Los Alamos National Laboratory is one of the world’s most powerful linear accelerators, generating ion beams up to an energy of 800 MeV.
Zumbro said that as a manager she has the opportunity to interact with people and facilitate their success. Her job requires her to collaborate with her team to operate the accelerator.
“We work together to make it all happen, not without stress, but when it comes together it is a great celebration, and people here are bonded together with the common goal of making the machine work,” Zumbro said.
Echoing Baron, Zumbro explained that her Auburn education helps her think through problems when resolving both technical challenges and personnel issues.
When problems appear on the operation of the accelerator, Zumbro said they must consider, “What have we seen in the past? What have we changed that might have resulted in an observed condition? And then there are always the problems you haven’t seen before – so you have to put all the pieces together to understand and then resolve the issue.”
Hardekopf, physics ’62, participated in the Navy ROTC program at Auburn. Upon graduation, he received a Woodrow Wilson fellowship to attend graduate school, but he first spent five-and-a-half years in the Navy as a commissioned officer. During that time, Hardekopf served on the first nuclear-powered destroyer, attended Admiral Rickover’s nuclear-power training program, and became a nuclear submarine officer. The Woodrow Wilson Foundation held his fellowship until he left the Navy, which he then used to pursue a doctorate in nuclear physics at Duke University.
After graduating from Duke in 1972, Hardekopf obtained a post-doctoral position at Los Alamos National Laboratory. When he arrived in Los Alamos, he intended to stay for one to two years to do post-doctoral research, but he obtained a staff position and ended up staying until his retirement in 2005 and lives in Los Alamos to this day.
Hardekopf spent his first 10 years at Los Alamos as a nuclear physics researcher, during which time he built a number of innovative devices to use in experiments, including the first polarized tritium ion source in the world. “The first 10 years were the most fun,” Hardekopf said. “I was involved in cutting-edge research in polarization physics at one of the premier scientific institutions in the world.”
His experience in the field led to a one-year sabbatical in Zurich, Switzerland, where he participated in experiments at the ETH (Swiss technical university) and the new Swiss meson facility.
Shortly after returning home, Hardekopf joined the Accelerator Technology Division, which was designing a proton storage ring for the Los Alamos Meson Physics Facility, and he eventually became leader of the Proton Storage Ring Group during construction and early commissioning. His group then began working on output optics for a demonstration particle-beam telescope.
“I was involved in what was affectionately known as the ‘Star Wars’ project. It was ambitious and heavily funded work to build a neutral- particle-beam accelerator, which would then be flown into space to take out incoming missiles.”
Hardekopf said he held a number of management positions at Los Alamos, the last being R&D leader for the Spallation Neutron Source, now operating at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, for which Los Alamos built the linear accelerator and beam diagnostics.
“Each project offered new challenges, including not only new technology, but working with and leading talented groups of physicists, engineers, and technicians,” Hardekopf said.
“Auburn prepared me for my future in many respects. First, my Auburn physics education led me to obtain nuclear-reactor training and experience in the Navy. Second, it prepared me for graduate work at Duke, not only from physics and math courses, but from excellent liberal arts courses in music appreciation, English, and history. I also greatly appreciated references I received from Howard Carr, the head of the Auburn Physics Department at that time. Finally, the atmosphere at Auburn allowed me to develop skills in collaboration and leadership that facilitated the management roles I eventually obtained.”
A two-time Auburn graduate, Little received her bachelor’s degree in botany in 1972 and her master’s in education in 1975. She started working at the laboratory in 2003, and she spent her first four years as group leader of about 75 staff members responsible for ecorisk and wildlife research, onsite archeological excavations, and National Environmental Policy Act and endangered species compliance. For the last six years she has worked as a project manager for reporting stakeholder involvement, and implementing Lean Six Sigma in a program responsible for controlling contaminants in storm water discharge.
“Auburn provided the foundation for my career. Critical thinking and conceptual modeling skills came from the foundational science and math classes. Team dynamics and leadership skills came from all those afternoons in lab, and scuba certification fostered my PhD in mangrove forest response to climate change from the University of Tennessee,” Little said.
Whether managing hundreds of employees or conducting groundbreaking research, Auburn alumni continue to play a daily role in Los Alamos National Laboratory’s mission of developing and applying science and technology to ensure the safety, security, and reliability of the U.S. nuclear deterrent; reduce global threats; and solve other emerging national security and energy challenges.