SLAC director John Sarrao ’89 wants to do ‘work that makes a difference’

In October 2023, John Sarrao ’89 became the newest director of the Stanford SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, the sixth in its history. Sarrao had previously worked for 30 years at Los Alamos National Laboratory, serving as deputy director for science, technology and engineering. In an exclusive interview with The Daily, Sarrao discussed the path forward for physics and particle science in today’s world. 

The Stanford Daily (TSD): What brought you to the Stanford SLAC National Accelerator, and what excites you about being here? 

John Sarrao (JS): I was here at Stanford as an undergrad, and graduated in 1989. I had a personal affinity with Stanford, and I knew SLAC pretty well from the outside as a reviewer. Then this job opportunity came up. So it was sort of like the stars aligned, allowing for a great time to make a change. I think SLAC is pretty amazing. I think Stanford is pretty amazing. And together, they’re obviously amazing. Being in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley, there is just an energy that is palpable. And so it’s the combination of both the institutions and the place that make it exciting.

TSD: And what are some of the main challenges of the transition to SLAC? 

JS:  I think the challenge or surprise is twofold. Because we’re medium-sized, we don’t have all the systems and processes that bigger labs have. And then there’s also the piece of understanding, what are the processes that we, SLAC, do for ourselves, and what are those that we rely on Stanford for?

TSD: What is that relationship with Stanford like?

JS: Like all the national labs, SLAC has a ton of students and postdocs. We have around 300 students, both grad students and undergrads, and about 200 postdocs. 85% of those students and postdocs are Stanford students and postdocs. So a Stanford student who has an interest in physics or material science could come work with us as a research project, both as part of your education and as a job. That coupling is very direct. There are actual SLAC faculty, in addition to a set of faculty on campus. And those combinations of people work together a lot. I think it’s an amazing partnership. 

TSD: Do you have a vision that you’d like to see happen at SLAC under your leadership? 

JS: I think that the direction SLAC was already going in was a really good direction. One opportunity [for change] is SLAC historically has focused on the most fundamental physics. Those are really interesting scientific questions, but they don’t really impact our day-to-day life very much. So SLAC has been trying to do, in addition to the very fundamental physics and science, work that makes more of a difference in people’s lives. 

I was here at SLAC as a reviewer on a committee the day that Stanford announced the School of Sustainability. The question I asked when I was here that day was, “Where’s SLAC in the press release? What is SLAC’s role in the Doerr School?” So the opportunity to keep doing all that we’re doing plus really work to make an impact by using our very fundamental science to partner with Stanford through the School of Sustainability — that’s something that’s already been growing in SLAC, but there’s a chance to grow even more. 

TSD: That’s fascinating. Is that work in sustainability underway? 

JS: Yes. For example, one of the things that SLAC has done a very nice job of over the last couple of years in partnership with Stanford is making an impact in battery science. We’re partnering both with colleagues on campus and also in companies in the area to talk about how to take battery performance from where it is today to better performance. And it’s not just how to make a battery that can store more energy, but how to make that battery that’s also durable. We’ve had some very positive successes in batteries.

TSD: AI has also been a significant topic of conversation as of late. Are there any ways SLAC is integrating the latest artificial intelligence techniques into its research?

JS: For one, it’s very much part of the partnership with Stanford. We’re doing AI research between SLAC researchers and Stanford researchers, and that combination is really powerful. I think that we do AI work in a variety of ways. One difference [from most AI] I would highlight is the reason that our full name is the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory — our accelerators underpin everything we do. So we’re not just using AI to do better materials discovery, we’re actually using AI to control our accelerators. In the olden days, we’d need an accelerator operator, and they’d know to turn this knob first and then that knob second and another knob third. Now, we’re developing control systems that use AI to optimize accelerators. That’s not something that our colleagues on campus are doing. All the work we’re doing in accelerators and control systems, we’re using AI. 

TSD: What is the most rewarding part of your job?

JS: That’s easy — the most rewarding part is the people. Yes, I go to lots of meetings. Yes, when you’ve got 2000 people and $7 million, there’s a fair amount of paperwork and bureaucracy, but you don’t do jobs like this for the sake of bureaucracy. You do it for working with people. And if I can make some small difference in making each SLAC employee’s life a little bit better — both so they can be more productive in their job and feel more like they belong and are included in our community — that’s worth it. 

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

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