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SPIE Professional April 2006

Lab Work

Robert Rosner talks about professional development and the U.S. national labs.

By Erin M. Schadt

One of the many career paths available to students with a background in photonics is through the U.S. national laboratories.
SPIE Professional recently asked Robert Rosner, director of Argonne National Laboratory (Argonne, IL), about the role professional development plays in the labs. His responses reveal the importance of continued career development in any profession.
SPIE Professional: What are key components of professional development in the national labs?
Robert Rosner: By and large, professional development for scientists and engineers aiming for work at the national labs is the same as for careers at research universities. Fundamentally, the only difference of some consequence is that laboratory staff tend not to teach in a classroom setting. Thus, the recipe for a research career (whether in academia, in industry, or at the labs) boils down to: learning one's craft very well, including learning how to identify good problems to work on; learning how to write research papers (and proposals!) that cogently convey one's results and one's future directions; learning how to present the research in a public forum, e.g., to both professional and less technical audiences; and developing professional links with colleagues.
SP: Has professional development changed in the national labs in the last few years?
RR: I think that over the past decade, national labs have been paying increasing attention to professional development of their research staff in two distinct ways. First, a number of labs are systematizing the mentoring process to make sure that every young scientist and engineer has an assigned mentor. In a sense, this is really a part of a "continued education" program for technical staff that extends past the scientific/technical realm.
Second, many national labs are implementing succession planning in a serious way, and that means training the leadership of the lab. Thus, in both cases, the labs have taken on an educational role that is internally focused and that is designed to ensure that a given lab has the human capital to continue successful operations.
SP: Is experience with entrepreneurship important when seeking a job at a national lab?
RR: I believe that all scientists need to be entrepreneurs in order to be successful in today's research environment. In the narrower sense of being entrepreneurial with respect to commercialization of research, I don't think that there is a specific expectation when hiring young scientists and engineers.
SP: What was a challenge you faced in your own professional development?
RR: In my case, my graduate school career did an excellent job of preparing me for a research career in which I was expected to be an independently functioning researcher from the get-go. I was basically on my own from the start, a kind of sink-or-swim experience that did teach me how to effectively act when it's all up to me,but I'm not so sure that this type of training was intentional.
That is, I never received any formal training in how to choose sensible research problems, how to teach, how to manage a research group, etc. All that was learned on the job. However, I strongly suspect that I would have benefited from mentoring in these regards, and that is the reason that I support formal mentoring processes at the national labs.
SP: What lesson have you learned in your career that you wish someone would have told you about earlier?
RR: The basic lesson that I did finally learn very well is: when you know you need help, go and actively seek it out. You will be surprised by the extent to which your colleagues are willing to help out, once asked. They simply may not be aware that you need help! So the essence of this lesson is that being shy or reticent about asking for help is a distinct recipe for failing. Admission of ignorance is decidedly not a weakness, but actually demonstrates a willingness to learn and improve one's performance.

Robert Rosner is the director of Argonne National Laboratory. An internationally recognized astrophysicist, he was the chairman of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago from 1991 to 1997, and since 1998 has been the university's William E. Wrather Distinguished Service Professor. Rosner will be a featured speaker at the upcoming Defense & Security Symposium.





Erin M. Schadt, SPIE Professional Managing Editor 

DOI: 10.1117/2.4200604.15