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A first-of-its-kind instrument enables one-of-a-kind student experience

October 1, 2019

What’s better than spending a hot Arizona summer working in a cool basement? Spending a hot Arizona summer in a cool basement, building a scientific instrument expected to be the first of its kind in the world.

Beneath Biodesign Institute building C, five Arizona State University students put their education to work this summer, aiding in the first phase of the compact X-ray free electron laser (CXFEL), a miniaturized high-fidelity X-ray source.

While most free electron lasers are miles long and cost billions to construct, ASU’s CXFEL fits neatly in a traditional lab space at a fraction of its peers’ massive cost. Housed in the Beus Compact X-ray Free Electron Laser Laboratory, the instrument will accelerate electron bunches to nearly the speed of light through a series of three linear accelerators. Powerful magnets will focus and direct the electrons to collide with focused infrared laser pulses. This collision — which generates the power of 100 Hoover Dams, but for only one-millionth of one-millionth of a second — produces X-ray pulses.

This elaborate process will enable scientists to peer into atomic- and molecular-scale structures with unmatched clarity. The CXFEL holds promise to advance discoveries in drug development, medical imaging, materials science, quantum materials and sustainable energy.

The project’s first phase, the compact X-ray light source, is taking shape under the direction of ASU Regents Professor Petra Fromme and Associate Professor Bill Graves, as well as their team in the Biodesign Center for Applied Structural Discovery.

The undergraduate students’ internship was made possible by a $50,000 donation from local philanthropists Bill and Susan Levine to advance the ASU CXFEL. Bill Levine is an investor, real estate developer and founder of Outdoor Systems, an advertising firm. Susan Levine is the director emeritus of Hospice of the Valley and previously served 23 years as the organization’s executive director before retiring in 2016.

“The Levines’ gift created this fantastic opportunity for the undergrads,” said Mark Holl, deputy director of the CXFEL project, who is overseeing the assembly of the instrument and led the student team. “Emphatically, I could not be happier with this team.”

The team’s primary focus over the summer was the physics modeling, design, assembly and testing of the precision thermal control water systems that are used to control the temperature of different CXFEL components. An integral part of the instrument, these systems demand an incredible level of precise water temperature control. One of the three systems requires control within one-hundredth of a degree Celsius, says Holl, who also serves as the chief engineer on the CXFEL.

Two men work with electrical equipment in a lab. The caption reads: Mechanical engineering student Alex Gardeck and engineer Steve Rednour work on an electrical control panel of the Compact X-ray Free Electron Laser.

Mechanical engineering student Alex Gardeck and engineer Steve Rednour work on an electrical control panel of the compact X-ray free electron laser. The students worked alongside the engineering team to bring the first phase of the instrument online. Photo by Andy DeLisle/ASU

The students were smoothly integrated into the team, assembling this system and other instrument components. The work provided them the opportunity to employ their coursework in a professional setting.

“It's been an incredible experience working on this project, because it's been a direct application of everything that I've learned in my undergraduate career,” said Alex Gardeck, a mechanical engineering student in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. “Really, we’re just living the everyday life of engineers, encountering problems and figuring out creative ways to solve them.”

Gardeck’s responsibilities included assembling and testing components for the instrument, some of which he 3D modeled using SolidWorks, a computer-aided design and engineering program.

“Hands-on assembly experience will help my designs in the future. When I'm doing a 3D model, everything lines up perfectly, but until I'm starting to torque these wrenches I don’t always see the reality of it,” he said while working on the instrument’s cooling system.

The project also provided students with an opportunity to learn from fellow interns.

Engineering students Brett Liebich and Brandon Cook, who work as electromechanical research technicians at the center, brought a wealth of experience they were able to pass along to the rest of the team. Veterans of the U.S. Navy, Liebich and Cook had previously served on nuclear submarines as a machinist’s mate and electrician's mate, respectively.

“After a decade in the Navy, we were able to get a skill set that you really don't see in a lot of interns or college students,” said Liebich. “Working with some guys who haven't done any of this, we get to not only mentor them a little bit, but also learn from the project engineers. We're engineering students, so the more eyes we can get looking at different things that we might end up doing, it's all good experience.” 

While moving from working on nuclear submarines to constructing complex scientific instrumentation isn’t exactly a one-to-one transition, the former sailors nevertheless found similarities between the two jobs. 

“The attention to detail, procedural compliance and problem solving that we learned in the nuke program is just being applied in a different fashion here,” said Cook.

Two young men peer at an array of scientific components. The caption: Students Alex Gardeck and Brandon Cook examine the precision thermal trim unit water systems that controls the temperature of components in the radiography/fluoroscopy room.

Students Alex Gardeck and Brandon Cook examine the precision thermal control water systems that regulate the temperature of components in the radiography/fluoroscopy room of the Beus Compact X-ray Free Electron Laser Laboratory. Photo by Andy DeLisle/ASU

Physics students Dakota King and Albert Wang also spent their summer working on the CXFEL. 

“This opportunity is rewarding because it's really hands-on and applied,” said King, who graduated in spring 2019 with his bachelor’s degree. “Physics is a lot of theory. It's cool getting into the engineering side of things.”

“When we’re taught about an instrument or experiment in class, it’s easy to understand why we’re talking about it or the outcomes that made it important,” said Wang, who had previously worked with CXFEL Science Director Graves. “With the CXFEL, it’s almost surreal to work on something that is on the forefront of science. We’re on the precipice of so many possibilities, and while it’s a challenging project, it’s a great opportunity for growth.”

Gardeck, King and Wang were instrumental in the developing both 3D and mathematical physics models of the precision thermal trim unit water systems, according to Holl. 

“Initially, we only had a control resolution on the order of one-fourth of a degree Celsius,” said Holl. This was a far cry from the one-hundredth required from the system.

Following the team’s modeling work, they were able to identify the right water flow regulating valves and actuators needed to achieve the precise temperature requirement.

“The students completed the full engineering process, from specifications to modeling the system physics incorporating the properties of real components,” said Holl. “This is a perfect example of an integrated project team with engineering and physics skills brought to bear on a challenging problem. That integration allowed us to achieve a critical need for this accelerator.”

Four of five of the students have remained working on the instrument through the fall semester, contributing as their academic schedules allow. Gardeck, who expects to graduate in the spring, is basing his honor’s thesis on the thermal trim water system.

“I’ve been obsessed with accelerators since I was a kid and I first learned of the Large Hadron Collider,” says Gardeck. “So to be able to work on the CXFEL is a dream come true, and I’m extremely grateful to the Levines for the opportunity.”

Top photo: Alex Gardeck, a mechanical engineering student, examines one of the precision thermal trim unit water systems that is used to control the temperature of various components of the compact X-ray free electron laser, or CXFEL. Photo by Andy DeLisle/ASU

Pete Zrioka

Managing editor , Knowledge Enterprise


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First semester with The College

October 1, 2019

What's life like in the largest academic unit at Arizona State University?

Arizona State University marked a record first-year undergraduate cohort of nearly 14,000 on-campus students this fall. The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences welcomed more than 3,000 to the academic heart of the university.

The College’s 95 undergraduate degree programs prepare students for careers in fields including anthropology, biodesign, biomimicry, urban planning, policy advising and international diplomacy. And those pursuing degrees elsewhere at ASU are also engaged here — 94% of all 2018 graduates took at least one course through The College during their time at ASU. So what does that look like for the latest Sun Devils on campus?

We caught up with students from each of The College’s three divisions to hear about their time at ASU so far, why they chose their major and what they’re looking forward to this semester.

Paige Fierro-Hernandez is a first-year student at The College studying English with a focus on writing, reading and rhetoric in the Department of English.

Paige Fierro-Hernandez, a commuter student, found that joining the ASU Programming and Activities Board helped her to feel more connected to campus life.

Paige Fierro-Hernandez: Humanities

Paige Fierro-Hernandez came to ASU with a plan to expand a family legacy. Now majoring in English with a focus on writing, rhetoric and literacies in the Department of English, she’s also looking to forge a creative path of her own.

“My grandfather was also an English major at ASU, and I've always been a writer and a really big reader,” she said. “I figured, why not take two things that I love and try and make a career.”

Fierro-Hernandez commutes to campus from her family home in Mesa. She said it can be difficult to connect with students and events on campus as a commuter. Joining the ASU Programming and Activities Board (PAB) was one way to fill the gap. 

“It can be hard to feel fully immersed at ASU without actually living here,” she said. “I joined PAB’s Memorial Union After Dark program because I like organizing activities, and I think it’s a good way to get involved.”

Fierro-Hernandez is the first person in her family to attend college since her grandfather graduated from ASU in 1972. She said she wants to make space for her writing and making new memories outside the classroom. 

“My grandpa was so excited when I told him I was going to ASU, he actually cried,” she said. “It sounds really nerdy, but I think now I’m looking forward to working on papers for my classes, and attending the Territorial Cup Series games.”

Brooke Zanon found a variety of studies at ASU that will serve her in a career in the international arena.

Brooke Zanon: Social sciences

Growing up some 30 minutes from the Tempe campus, Brooke Zanon first became interested in global affairs in high school.

“We didn’t really have a program for international relations at my school, but I did a lot of research online to see what I wanted to do in the field in the future,” she said. “Before college, I attended a summer camp at Georgetown University that focused on the study.”

When it came time to think about college, she remembers looking for a balance between staying close to family and finding the academic opportunities she hoped would lead to a career in the international arena. Getting accepted to Barrett, The Honors College was the final push she needed to attend ASU. 

Now pursuing a major in global studies in the School of Politics and Global Studies, a minor in political science and a certificate in Islamic studies, Zanon is turning the interests she forged in high school into an academic path at The College. 

Zanon serves as the policy chair of ASU’s chapter of the gun control advocacy group March For Our Lives, and also meets with the Alexander Hamilton Club on campus when she has time. 

She said engaging with those organizations and living in a residence hall has helped her branch out as she starts her Sun Devil journey. 

“I think so far I’ve gotten over the worry of not making friends by forming relationships with the people on the same floor of my residence hall,” she said. “Clubs help too, because you’ve already established that common interest and it’s easier to build from there.” 

First-year student Francisco Cabrera is studying physics in The College's Department of Physics.

Francisco Abraham Cabrera says that hard times give students an opportunity to problem-solve and learn how to be independent.

Francisco Abraham Cabrera: Natural sciences

Francisco Abraham Cabrera grew up wanting to understand the physical world and our place within it.

“I’ve always been curious about the universe, how it works and the fact that we as humans are so insignificantly small, yet able to decipher so much,” he said.

Now, he’s turning his curiosity into a study as a physics major in The College’s Department of Physics

Cabrera came to ASU as a part of The College’s College Assistance Migrant Program, an initiative at the School of Transborder Studies supporting Arizona students from migrant and seasonal farmworker backgrounds. He said meeting and working with other students in the program has helped him feel more at home on campus. And between socializing and classes, living in a residence hall has provided a space to wind down.

“I like living in my residence hall because I get to enjoy the quiet, at least during the week,” he said. “I also like going for walks in the evenings, kind of as a way to just realize that I’m here, at ASU.”

As the semester progresses, he said it’s important to remember how to problem-solve, and always strive toward solutions.

“I feel like no matter what your personality is, you’re going to be taught a lesson in independence here,” he said. “There are going to be hard times, but eventually you’re going to figure it out — I think it’s important to remember you're at ASU for a reason.” 

Top photo: The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences moved into a new home at Armstrong Hall last year. 

Writer , The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences