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Unshackle Upstate taps Rochesterian as new leader

Unshackle Upstate, a non-partisan pro-taxpayer advocacy coalition representing Upstate New York, has tapped a Monroe County legislator and former small-business owner as its new executive director.

Justin Wilcox will lead the organization’s ongoing advocacy efforts, strengthen partnerships with allied organizations and raise awareness about key issues impacting what the organization calls “upstate’s overburdened taxpayers.”

Justin Wilcox
Justin Wilcox

“I’m honored and excited to lead this dynamic organization,” Wilcox said in a statement Tuesday. “Having worked in the public sector as well as the private sector, I know what needs to be done to revive our economy and restore upstate communities. Working together with our leaders in Albany, I believe we can provide real relief for struggling people across Upstate New York.”

Wilcox owned a small roofing business that he founded in the 1990s before serving in state and local government. He has been a Monroe County legislator since 2011, however, his work in the New York State Legislature began two decades ago when was hired as a legislative aide to former state Sen. Richard Dollinger. Since then, he has served as legislative director to former Sen. Ted O’Brien, and former Assembly members Joe Morelle and Jamie Romeo.

“Upstate New York is in the midst of a very real crisis. Businesses are struggling to keep their doors open and far too many hardworking people have lost their jobs,” said Brian Sampson, president of the Empire State Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors and Unshackle Upstate board chairman. “Justin Wilcox has the energy and experience to lead this organization forward. Under Justin’s leadership, we’ll continue to call on elected officials to stand up for upstate.”

Wilcox earned his associate degree from Monroe Community College in 1995 and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University at Buffalo in 2001.

Wilcox succeeds Michael Kracker, a Buffalo resident who had worked in several senior positions in the U.S. House of Representatives, including as deputy chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Chris Collins. Kracker served as executive director of Unshackle Upstate from 2018 until July of this year when he became a senior adviser at the New York State Senate.

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Funding plan secured in record amount for Laser Lab

Funding for the University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics has been agreed upon in a record amount for five years, according to Sen. Charles E. Schumer.

Schumer on Friday shared an announcement of the Laser Lab’s $409.9 million “Cooperative Work Agreement” with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. The last five-year agreement had expired in 2018.

“This agreement will enable the world-class lab to continue making vital contributions to national security and providing invaluable sources of scientific education and leadership that ultimately support DOE’s mission,” Schumer said.

Michael Campbell, director of the lab, said the plan to provide record amounts of funding reflects the quality of the work, students and research at the lab. He credited Schumer, along with support from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and U.S. Rep. Joseph Morelle, with securing the agreement.

“We call him “Prophet Chuck,” Campbell said. Schumer met with NNSA Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty in 2018 to help combat cuts in the lab’s budget proposed by the Trump administration.  His talks were key in turning around funding so it would increase then and in the current year. Gordon-Hagerty last visited the lab in August, accompanied by Morelle.

Schumer said,  “I pushed for this new Cooperative Agreement to keep the lab up and running every chance I got because not only does the lab play a paramount role in our national security, but is also vital to our regional economy, employing hundreds of scientists and bringing millions of dollars into the region.”

Since 2015, the lab is estimated to have brought $16 million in business to 50 New York companies, including some in Rochester.

The lab employs about 300 scientists locally and receives visits from approximately 400 researchers each year. One of its primary jobs is working on creating energy through fusion and conducting physics research. Its experiments also help test theories for nuclear arms, providing the only way to gain such information since the banning of underground nuclear testing, Schumer noted.

“A lot of things we do start out with a defense application,” Campbell said, citing the science behind automotive GPS systems.

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Lasers in Rochester may fuel the world, reach for the universe

It’s hard to imagine that when lasers were first invented there was a bit of a “so what?” reaction.

In 1960, light was the main application people could envision from lasers and the question was why did we need a new source of light?

But today, laser research in Rochester is helping to determine where in the universe there might be life.

Michael Campbell, director of the University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics, explains that much of the research done at the lab focuses on what happens to matter under extreme conditions.

“Most of the universe is in extreme conditions,” he said.  By firing the laser at molecules in an attempt to create fusion in a lab setting, scientists begin to understand more about what’s happening to molecules elsewhere in the universe. And depending on which molecules and how they interact, they could be the ones to support life.

All this comes from the ongoing main mission at LLE, which is to harness fusion to create a clean source of energy. Scientists including Campbell are reluctant to make predictions about when fusion will finally be reached in a controllable way to produce commercial energy. They don’t want to fall into the trap that “cold fusion,” a different technology, fell into when it failed to materialize as promised.

Nevertheless, Campbell predicted fusion will be reached in about a decade.

“We will demonstrate that we can light the fire,” Campbell said, which is just the beginning.

Ignition at LLE will be a breakthrough on the order of human flight – the one the Wright brothers succeeded in at Kitty Hawk in 1903, Campbell said.  It took another dozen years or so for some militaries in Europe to adopt flight for use in World War I. Then another 20 years passed before planes were used more extensively to fight in World War II.  Finally, another 15 years went by before commercial travel by air became routine.

“Fusion is really hard, but in the end, it will power the planet,” Campbell said. “The energy crisis goes away.” And it will power the planet as long as people exist, he added. His confidence is rooted in the fact that fusion is nature’s way of making energy, he said, (i.e., the sun). But it’s hard for us to replicate nature. “Nothing that impactful is easy.”

About 60 percent of research at LLE is actually done by visiting scientists who bring their laser experiments to Rochester. They hail from the federal government, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and other centers for scientific advancement. What they discover sometimes is a byproduct of what they were looking for.

“We do science, but in the process of doing science, we find technology,” Campbell said.  For instance, developing smaller and smaller wavelengths for lasers has been useful in making smaller and smaller computer circuitry. As smaller integrated computer circuits became available, the capacity of the computers increased, while their size decreased. The fastest computers in 1985, Campbell noted, had a fraction of the capacity contained in the smartphones many of us carry in our pockets.

“You start out doing science, but people find ways to use things that you’d never imagine,” he said.

LLE, with an annual budget of $80 million, employs 350 people and keeps 140 graduate students busy too. About one third of those graduate students go on to jobs in the industry, another third end up working at laser research centers such as the national laboratories, and one third go into academia, Campbell said.

Donna Strickland won the Nobel Prize for Physics for work she did as a graduate student at the University of Rochester. (Photo by Peter Lee, Waterloo Region Record)
Donna Strickland won the Nobel Prize for Physics for work she did as a graduate student at the University of Rochester. (Photo by Peter Lee, Waterloo Region Record)

One of those students was Donna Strickland, who is now a professor at the University at Waterloo, in Ontario, Canada. As a graduate student at UR in the late 1980s, Strickland and her adviser, Gérard Mourou, were using the same laser technology that’s been used to operate on nearsighted eyes and create super-strong Gorilla glass. They developed a way to amplify the strength of laser impulses in a way that allowed the development of table-top lasers. Strickland and Mourou shared in a Nobel Prize in Physics a few months ago based on this work that she featured in her graduate thesis.

“The Nobel gives us a reputation for quality,” Campbell said. More work at LLE, attracted by the attention to its former student and former professor winning the prize, will mean more work generally in Rochester. Several local companies, including Sydor Technologies and Optimax Systems Inc., may benefit as a result.

Sydor manufactures products that are necessary for firing and assessing the laser at the lab and has gone on to make such products for places like the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, and similar facilities in the United Kingdom and France.

“We transfer technology from the LLE and commercialize it into products that can be sold to customers around the world,” said Michael Pavia, president and CEO at Sydor.

Not all laser research in Rochester happens at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics. Last week, a joint project of scientists at UR and Rochester Institute of Technology won attention from the publication Physics World.  They’re working on a phonon laser, which amplifies sound instead of light and have developed a technique to increase and focus oscillation of suspended nanoparticles.

According to lead scientist Nick Vamivakas at UR, the work could advance precision measuring, which is key in the use and manufacture of optics. By the way, Vamivakas’ team is building on the work of American physicist Arthur Ashkin, who was the third person to share the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics.

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