- Number 396 |
- September 2, 2013
Scientist shares passion for physics, astronomy and bees
Michelle Shinn, a senior scientist in
Jefferson Lab's Free-Electron Laser Division.
To spend time with Michelle Shinn, a senior scientist at DOE’s Jefferson Lab and a newly elected Fellow of the American Physical Society, is to step into a conversation in which she seamlessly quotes Thomas Jefferson, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and John Adams, and discourses on the raising of bees, the talks she gives on astronomy and her life-long passion for physics.
A self-described "child of 'why?'" Shinn has been questioning the world around her and diving into learning since she was a toddler in Oklahoma. She still recalls declining her mother's response of "because" – and insisting on a better one – when she asked why a toy top demonstrated the principle of precession.
She realized early on the only way to get the answers she sought was through science. An experiment in an eighth-grade class that passed a mild electrical current through a group of students holding hands became one "X" mark on her life map. "What kind of science explains this?" she wanted to know. The answer, of course, was physics.
By her senior year at Oklahoma State University, where she received a bachelor's degree in physics with a minor in math, she was asking: What would she do with that degree? A master's seemed a given, but her adviser pointed out that if she had a Ph.D. she could do research and have a team of her own, an idea that Shinn found immensely appealing. "Still, I hedged my bets and did a master's with a thesis," she recalled.
Although she looked at bigger schools – Yale, Harvard, the University of North Carolina and the University of Illinois among them – and had lots of offers, the lure of family and a smaller graduate physics program kept her at Oklahoma State.
"At a big school, you're a nameless person, and these large programs are hard wash-outs," she noted. "It's dog eat dog. I decided to stay at Oklahoma State and be a bigger fish in that smaller pond. Maybe that wouldn't be perfect for everyone, but it worked well for me."
Her next big decision was pivotal as well. After she received her Ph.D. in 1983 under the guidance of William Sibley, with whom she remains close friends, she set out for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where she worked as a physicist on advanced laser drivers for the ICF (Inertial Confinement Fusion) program.
"I made a decision to break with tradition," she said. "It was usual for my peers to get a post-doc for two years, and then enter academia. Since Bill Sibley had come from a national lab, I decided to follow that path."
After six years there, she became an associate professor at Bryn Mawr College, where she stayed for more than four years before coming to Jefferson Lab in 1995 to join the Free-Electron Laser division. She led the FEL optics group from its inception until 2007, and was the chief optical scientist for the division before taking a leave in August to begin a year-long temporary work assignment with the Office of Nuclear Physics, Facilities and Project Management Division at the Department of Energy offices in Germantown, Md.
She holds seven patents in optical technology for her work, and she was recently honored by the American Physical Society for her contributions in the applications of lasers in society, particularly the development of high-power optics technologies for rare-earth solid state lasers and free-electron lasers. She was nominated for fellowship by the APS Forum on Industrial and Applied Physics, which requires “outstanding physics research, important applications of physics, leadership in or service to physics, or significant contributions to physics education.”
Shinn also has authored or co-authored more than 170 publications – most of them during her time at Jefferson Lab. She considers the nearly 90 listed on her curriculum vitae to be the most important. She has served as guest editor of Optical Engineering for a special issue on laser damage and has written two book chapters, one on lasers and laser optics and the other on free-electron laser optics damage mechanisms.
Shinn's interests outside work span science, music and art. Spurred by a fellow staff scientist’s interest in raising bees, she dove into beekeeping this year with her characteristic gusto. She now has a hive containing thousands of bees at her home in Newport News.
A telescope she received as a child from her grandparents led to a deep interest in astronomy that was put aside for many years. Then in 2005, she woke one day and asked herself, "What are you going to do today to enjoy life even more?" Astronomy was the answer, and since that time she has become involved in "star parties," where amateur astronomers gather to observe the night sky. Ultimately, she was asked to become a speaker for those groups, and she now gives talks on dark matter and dark energy, merging cosmology and physics.
A mother of three grown daughters, Shinn is also an inveterate bird watcher and is learning to play the guitar. She reads when she has the time and is making her way through biographies of the early U.S. presidents and has started work on a memoir.
Her passion is driven by a singular, personal question: "How do I make the world better?"
When the letter arrived announcing her selection as a 2012 APS Fellow, one of the highest peer honors a physicist can receive, she at first thought it was a piece of "quasi junk mail" and opened it leisurely. As she glanced over the content, the reality of it nearly overwhelmed her."This is huge to me," she said. "I couldn't have had this happen, though, without Jefferson Lab. The opportunities that a scientist has here and the team of people I work with are tremendous ... nothing is done in isolation. It's because of the entire team that I've had the opportunities to create what I have."
Submitted by DOE's Thomas Jefferson Accelerator Facility