Feature Story | 5-Jul-2023

Speaking my language: Robert Winarski’s background helps him coordinate beamline installation for the Advanced Photon Source Upgrade

A self-described ​“scientist who knows how to build things,” Winarski bridges worlds on a daily basis in his role with the upgrade project

DOE/Argonne National Laboratory

If you’re visiting another country, it helps to be able to speak the language. 

The same holds true if you’re working in specialized fields, each with their own shorthand and jargon. If you can talk to scientists and engineers, for instance, in a language they understand and connect with, you’ll be able to get your vision across much more effectively.  

This is one of the reasons Robert Winarski is a perfect choice for his role as beamline installation coordinator with the Advanced Photon Source (APS) Upgrade project. (The APS is a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science user facility at DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory.) Winarski describes himself as ​“a scientist who knows how to build things.” His experience in the worlds of both construction and science experimentation helps him connect with the people constructing and enhancing the experiment stations — called beamlines — for the upgraded APS, and the people who will be using them to make astonishing new discoveries. 

“We have all these different beamlines, each one doing unique research. That’s amazing, and I can’t wait to see the exciting new science that will come from all of our hard work.”  — Robert Winarski, Argonne National Laboratory

Simply put, he speaks both languages, a skill he calls on every day. As part of the upgrade project, seven brand new beamlines will be built, infrastructure will be constructed to support two others and 15 existing beamlines will be enhanced. But as Winarski can tell you, every one of the 68 current beamlines at the APS will be improved in some way, and it’s his job to coordinate all of that work, with the goal of presenting a shiny new APS to the world scientific community once the upgrade project concludes. 

“We want all beamlines to come back online as soon as they can,” Winarski said. ​“At the end of the day, we want to have each beamline perform at its absolute best as soon as possible. We have a lot of work ahead of us to accomplish this.” 

Winarski has been at Argonne for 23 years, and while the APS Upgrade is the largest construction project he’s worked on, it isn’t the first. He studied physics, and after receiving his Ph.D. from Tulane University in 1999, he worked as a postdoctoral fellow at the then-relatively-new APS. He soon took a job helping to build and operate one of the key capabilities of the Center for Nanoscale Materials (CNM), also a DOE Office of Science user facility at Argonne. Specifically, Winarski co-led the project that resulted in CNM’s X-ray beamline at Sector 26 of the APS.  

That beamline is called the Hard X-ray Nanoprobe, and like the new beamlines Winarski is overseeing now, it made use of novel technologies to offer capabilities beyond those available at the time. Winarski developed many of these capabilities and earned an R&D 100 Award — known as the Oscars of innovation — for his work in 2009.  

Winarski has long been interested in scientific research and in the tools that enable it, and his time at CNM catered to both of these passions. He was the kid who took things apart and put them back together just to see how they worked, and he knows the ins and outs of beamlines. He tells a story about relocating a beamline from one APS sector to another as a postdoc and says he had it up and running in two and a half weeks. But speaking about the scientific output of the beamlines he helped build gets him just as animated. 

“I’ve always been fascinated by microscopy techniques, and I like working at Argonne,” he said. ​“You’d be hard-pressed to be able to do this research at a university. At Argonne you can scale up the research.” 

Winarski moved from CNM to the APS in 2017, when plans for the APS Upgrade were still taking shape. His first job was overseeing one of the new beamlines — the Coherent High-Energy X-ray beamline at Sector 28 — but he quickly took on additional duties. By 2019, he was in charge of building three of the new beamlines and overseeing the installation of the rest. Then, in November 2022, Winarski took on his current role, coordinating not just the construction of the new beamlines but all improvements being made to every beamline around the APS. 

“Every beamline is unique,” Winarski said. ​“Each one is optimized for different techniques, including different optics, components and instrumentation. Some of them have been running for 25 years and provide key capabilities that are essential also for the next 25 years, and they only need to be optimized. At the same time, we are building the next generation of cutting-edge scientific instruments from the ground up.”  

Beamline work has been going on for years, and several beamline enhancements are already complete. But with the year-long shutdown now underway, Winarski’s job has kicked into high gear. He gets a lot of emails at all hours of the day, working with contractors in other parts of the world, and when he’s not answering those, you can find him on the experiment floor, overseeing work. He’s the go-to contact for anyone doing experiment station work, including the Collaborative Access Teams who operate nearly half of the APS beamlines. He also liaisons with Photon Sciences management and laboratory operations, ensuring everything runs smoothly. 

Naturally, he said, his ability to speak the language of both scientists and engineers helps him in this role. But he said it would not be possible without the team of people he works with — both the larger group striving to complete the wider upgrade project and the on-the-ground teams doing the nuts-and-bolts work at the beamlines.  

And if he has a single message to deliver, it’s that everyone involved in the upgrade of the APS, no matter what specialized area they belong to, needs to work together to make it happen. 

“We need to help each other out to complete this project,” Winarski said. ​“It’s difficult because we’re used to thinking of our individual beamlines, but if we all work together, everyone will be better off.”  

When the APS returns to operations in 2024, its X-ray beams will be up to 500 times brighter than they are now, and Winarski is excited to see what the new and upgraded beamlines will be able to do with them. In the end, he said, the scientific breakthroughs that the upgraded APS will enable are what it’s all about. 

“We have all these different beamlines, each one doing unique research,” he said. ​“That’s amazing, and I can’t wait to see the exciting new science that will come from all of our hard work.”  

About the Advanced Photon Source

The U. S. Department of Energy Office of Science’s Advanced Photon Source (APS) at Argonne National Laboratory is one of the world’s most productive X-ray light source facilities. The APS provides high-brightness X-ray beams to a diverse community of researchers in materials science, chemistry, condensed matter physics, the life and environmental sciences, and applied research. These X-rays are ideally suited for explorations of materials and biological structures; elemental distribution; chemical, magnetic, electronic states; and a wide range of technologically important engineering systems from batteries to fuel injector sprays, all of which are the foundations of our nation’s economic, technological, and physical well-being. Each year, more than 5,000 researchers use the APS to produce over 2,000 publications detailing impactful discoveries, and solve more vital biological protein structures than users of any other X-ray light source research facility. APS scientists and engineers innovate technology that is at the heart of advancing accelerator and light-source operations. This includes the insertion devices that produce extreme-brightness X-rays prized by researchers, lenses that focus the X-rays down to a few nanometers, instrumentation that maximizes the way the X-rays interact with samples being studied, and software that gathers and manages the massive quantity of data resulting from discovery research at the APS.

This research used resources of the Advanced Photon Source, a U.S. DOE Office of Science User Facility operated for the DOE Office of Science by Argonne National Laboratory under Contract No. DE-AC02-06CH11357.

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.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://​ener​gy​.gov/​s​c​ience.

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