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Steve Cundiff Wins Silver Medal for JILA’s New X-Wing

Published: 10-22-2012
Source: JILA Scientific Communications

Steve Cundiff, JILA Fellow.  Credit: Brad Baxley, JILA

Steve Cundiff will receive a Silver Medal from the U. S. Department of Commerce for his leadership of JILA’s X-Wing project at an award ceremony to be held in Washington, D. C. on January 8, 2013. He is also being honored for this achievement during the 40th annual NIST Awards Ceremony at NIST in Gaithersburg, Maryland on December 5, 2012.

JILA is the joint research institute between NIST and the University of Colorado, Boulder. For 50 years, JILA has been a world leader in measurement science research and education of scientists who have become leaders in metrology, innovation, education, and national policy. Before Cundiff was able to secure support for the new building, JILA’s aging facilities were increasingly unable to provide the control of vibration, temperature, humidity, and air cleanliness required for a world-class research and measurement science.

The existing JILA facilities also were filled to overflowing, barely able to accommodate the existing experiments and people, with no room for growth. And while the success of JILA research and teaching relies on close collaborations among people from diverse scientific backgrounds, the old facilities didn’t encourage the informal collaborations and “productive collisions” that spark new ideas.

Today, Cundiff is being recognized “for his initiative and sustained leadership in envisioning and then seeing through to completion of … the JILA X-Wing Laboratory, a $35 M advanced research and teaching laboratory. This unique facility will benefit the nation through mission-critical advances in measurement science,” according to the citation for the Silver Medal. Thanks to Cundiff’s leadership in a team of NIST, CU, and private sector partners, the JILA X-Wing provides world-class research and teaching lab facilities, provides room for JILA to grow, and is a model for space that encourages collaboration and interaction.

After learning he had won the Silver Medal, Cundiff recapped the 12-year history of efforts to get more space for JILA. The idea for a new JILA building was first raised by Jim Faller in 2000, but failed to get traction. Five years later, after Cundiff had become Chief of NIST’s Quantum Physics Division (QPD), he ran the idea by NIST Director Bill Jeffrey. Jeffrey was sufficiently receptive to the idea that Cundiff returned to JILA to ask the Fellows if they wanted to pursue the idea. A majority favored the new building.

Then the real work began. The vision, funding, design, and construction of the X-Wing required a collaboration among NIST scientists and senior NIST management; CU faculty and senior leadership; NIST and CU facilities management and staff; Congressional and Administration funders; architects, engineers, and construction contractors.

“Dr. Cundiff was crucial to the success of this complex partnership, leading the team to overcome many barriers, including potential problems with funding as the U. S. economy soured, the need for major design changes required by CU architectural standards, the need to coordinate with other CU organizations as the X-Wing was constructed in a very tight space immediately surrounded by other CU departments, and the need to coordinate CU, NIST, and private sector partners all operating under different constraints,” wrote current QPD Chief Tom O’Brian in his nomination letter for the medal.

All this planning came to fruition in May of 2010 with ground breaking for the X-Wing. During construction Cundiff and JILA staffer Doug Johnson worked tirelessly to keep things on track for building occupancy in early 2012.

“During the construction, Steve was conscious of my research needs,” says Jun Ye. “I run a complex lab where we push the frontiers of measurement science. Steve worked to make sure my research was left mostly intact.

“When I mentioned a problem to Steve during the construction, he took care of it. I’m grateful for that. Otherwise, I would have been out of business for a year and a half while the new building was under construction.”

In addition to building new labs and protecting old ones, Cundiff succeeded in opening up the entire new wing to daylighting via a large skylight and wide central staircase enclosed by half walls of glass. Even the basement receives daylighting from this arrangement for about three weeks a year around the summer solstice.

“The wide staircase makes it possible for our new collaborative spaces to span multiple floors,” says Cundiff. “JILA scientists, visitors, postdocs, graduate students, and undergraduate students stop and interact with each other on a regular basis.”

The building provides more than the opportunity for creative collaborations, however. It is technically the most complicated building ever built on the CU campus. The advanced lab support systems and the new, larger clean room are the best money can buy. So far the advanced systems in the labs are working as designed.

“My new lab is ten times less dusty than my old lab,” Ye said. The temperature is more stable. It’s cleaner and quieter, with less vibration noise.” The improvements in the new cold-molecule research lab mean that JILA is set to become the world center for research on ultracold molecules. Cundiff is proud the new X-Wing is supporting this exciting development.

Asked how he felt about winning a Silver Medal for his efforts, Cundiff turned reflective for a moment. “I realized I learned a lot doing this project from the very beginning, but I’ll never use it. I’ll never do it again.” Since the completion of the building, Cundiff’s full attention is once more on his research into the nature of light and its interactions with semiconductors and other materials.

At JILA, we’re glad Steve Cundiff took a side trip into the world of high-tech building construction. We think he earned that medal.