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Michael Smith

Astrophysicist Uses Celestial Knowledge to Cultivate Rising Stars

Michael Smith

ORNL Nuclear Astrophysicist Michael Smith inspects the framework of what will eventually become the Oak Ridge Rutgers University Barrel Array, a $2 million system of detectors that will enable more sensitive and precise measurements of charged particles emitted from nuclear reactions with unique accelerated neutron-rich radioactive nuclei, such as those occurring in supernova explosions. Smith also runs simulations of the explosions on supercomputers and designs software tools so that scientists from around the world can run and view explosion simulations online.

After having mentored more than 25 Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU) research participants over the course of 14 years, some would say Michael S. Smith, a nuclear astrophysicist from Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), knows a thing or two about counseling the next generation.

One of those former students, Luke Roberts, credits the opportunity to work with Smith in a national laboratory setting as one of the key elements to his continued success.

“Michael and his collaborators have had an exceptional impact on my career in nuclear astrophysics,” said Roberts. “Michael provided me with the opportunity to get involved in original research by funding me to come work with his group and giving me an exceptional amount of his time.”

Another student of Smith’s, Japanese-native Tomomi Sunayama, presented a research paper at the 10th international symposium on the Origin of Matter and Evolution of Galaxies in Sapporo, Japan. Sunayama, who was only an undergraduate at the time, presented data on the nuclear reactions she studied while participating in Smith’s research through the Oak Ridge Science Semester program at ORNL.

Smith notes that serving as a mentor has created a mutually rewarding experience for both him and the students.

“I have found it very rewarding to work closely with students and involve them in my research projects, to make them true collaborators and contributors as we try to solve some really exciting questions about the cosmos,” said Smith.

“Some students ask questions that really make me a better scientist, whether forcing me to go back and do my homework—or in some wonderful cases—taking our research in new directions.”

Smith serves as the leader of the Astrophysics Experimental Group in the ORNL Physics Division and conducts research to measure the thermonuclear reactions that occur when stars explode. He also runs simulations of the explosions on supercomputers and designs software tools so that scientists from around the world can run and view explosion simulations online.

In February 2008, the U.S. Department of Energy, ORAU and ORNL recognized Smith’s outstanding mentoring efforts by awarding him with an Education Champion Award. In addition to participating in ORAU-administered educational programs, Smith regularly visits schools to speak and travels internationally to deliver student lectures, as well as technical presentations.