"Yeah, but what do you DO at NIST?"

I'm often asked what I do at NIST. Most people know that the atomic clock is housed in my facility, but what they don't know is that there's hundreds of other exciting science experiments taking place daily on the sprawling Department of Commerce site, nestled up near the base of Boulder's magnificent flatirons. When the building now known as the Katharine Blodgett Gebbie Laboratory was being erected (take a moment and release inner 6th grader giggles), we had the foresight and were granted the go-ahead to include a helium recovery system in the structure (thanks Obama)! This was a major necessity for the site, not only for the many experiments that require the low temperature environment that liquid helium provides, but also because helium is a non-renewable resource on our planet. Once that party balloon pops, people, that bit of helium escapes our atmosphere and is gone forever, forever... forever...!

Filling a Dewar with liquid helium
For the lion's share of my career, 1987-2013, I was an electronics technician in a project that characterized superconductors, the mystical wires that carry thousands of amps of DC current with no resistance. The types of superconductors that we studied were the low-temperature kind employed today in electromagnets such as what you would find in an MRI machine. Now for these superconducting wires to put on their capes and do their superconducting thing, they must be cooled down to around 9 Kelvin (-443 °F) or below. This is achieved by using liquid helium which provides a 4 Kelvin environment.

While the research of low-temperature superconductors was winding down at NIST, the new building was going up and our helium recovery system was going in. When the Gebbie laboratory opened in April 2012, we had the new capability of recapturing the helium gas that was exhausted from our experiments and reprocessing it into liquid to use again in other experiments. That's what brings me to my present station at one of the finest science institutions of our nation. I'm the guy running NIST-Boulder's helium recovery and liquefaction facility, herding and wrangling helium atoms, keeping them safe and happy here with us on Earth. My weekly tasks include, but are not limited to:

  • Taking roll call of where all the helium is. Which atoms are in gas form and which ones are in liquid form? When totaled, it is equivalent to ~3000 liquid liters of helium.
  • Determining and keeping a pulse the scientists' needs to keep their important research steaming ahead.
  • Filling the containers (called Dewars) with the cold liquid and delivering to their labs.
  • Keeping some of the research magnets in my area filled with the magic cold juice.
  • Running the helium liquefier to convert all the recovered gas back into liquid.
  • Hunting down escape routes for the tricky little helium atoms with a handheld leak detector.
  • and of course, doing all of the above while keeping safety at the forefront!
So there you have it, the answer to your burning question of "what the fuck do you do there?" What about you? What's your job?


In the blink of an eye...

Where, oh where did my summer go? As I sit here in the middle of August, wondering just how many times I'll have to cut the grass before Fall rolls in,  I'm realizing that this particular summer was a mere flash-in-the-pan, a carnival ride that took us from zero to 100 and back again in an instant. Simply put, the events of the summer of 2017 redirected the lives of my family forever.

It started out on the calm evening of May 20th. I was about to go to bed. I had a busy Saturday ahead of me, helping get Nick moved to a new apartment that was closer to his school. The phone rang and it was Nick's friend Tyler. Nick had fallen while attending a concert at Red Rocks and dislocated his left knee. My wife and I are no strangers to late night ER meetups with one of our three kids, not that they're particularly clumsy or anything, it's just that shit happens. Well, what we thought would amount to a couple of months of Nick wearing a leg brace quickly and unexpectedly escalated to the possibility of him losing his leg! An artery in his knee had been severed and the next week was a vigilant effort to reestablish blood flow in his leg. In the end, all efforts failed and Nick, with us at his side, made the tough decision to amputate his leg above the knee. The procedure went well and after 17 days in the hospital, we brought our 21 year old baby boy home (Nick is the youngest, so he'll always be baby to us). So there we were at a crossroads. A quote attributed to Yogi Berra rang true at that moment, "When You Come to a Fork in the Road, Take It!" What other choice does one have, right?

Through the month of June, Nick started conquering all of the new challenges that his situation presented him with. His mobility is increasing daily, as he patiently waits to be cleared to start prosthesis, but for now he has to accept living with Mom and Dad again and start improvising how he accomplishes daily tasks. A positive attitude is what is required to get around with a walker and a wheelchair. Fortunately, positivity is Nick's biggest asset and he continues to inspire us with his fortitude everyday.

July brought us to a long awaited joyous event, the wedding of our daughter, Samantha! So much planning went into that day, 7/7/17, and it went off without a hitch. Samantha was the most beautiful I had ever seen her and her groom was ever so dashing in his bow tie. The night went by far too quickly, as parties tend to do when you're the host, but fun was had by all and we went to sleep that night with a very real sense that everything was gonna be OK.

So now, here we are in the middle of August. Samantha, now Mrs. Crowe, is approaching the start of her career as a teacher, Adam and Lauren are planning a move to Denver soon to continue chasing their dreams together, Nick is preparing to get up on a new leg and get back to school to finish his Bachelor's degree, Maura began watching twin baby boys daily at our house, and I found new purpose in getting up everyday and doing the job I love and have been doing for nearly 30 years. All of our lives are very different than they were back in May... and it all happened in the blink of an eye.