Jefferson Lab: Pushing the envelope of modern technology

Beside the Point

Douglas Higinbotham with some of the many students that he has mentored

The song, “A Whole New World,” from the movie soundtrack, Aladdin, speaks volumes about life in just a few words: A whole new world; a new fantastic point of view… a whole new world; a dazzling place I never knew… a whole new world; don’t you dare close your eyes… a whole new world; every turn a surprise…

There is little more exciting than being on the cutting edge of fresh ideas, discovering new meanings behind old knowledge and finding truths that unlock worlds of opportunity. And imagine being part of a company that specializes in just such things. 

Jefferson Lab, formerly known as CEBAF (Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility), located on Jefferson Avenue in Newport News, has as its mission a goal that goes back to the human quest of Aristotle to answer the question of “what the world around us is made of,” says Dr. Douglas Higinbotham, physics division operations coordinator.

Located in the heart of the Newport News electron accelerator facility is a classic atom smasher physicists use to learn about how things are made and the minute elements from which they derive. The accelerator smashes objects into “infinitesimally tiny particles and probes the nucleus down to a cloud of electrons at the angstrom scale (i.e., unit of length equal to one ten-billionth of a meter). It’s incredible to examine such tiny object protons, neutrons and composite objects like lead and gold — smashing them to see how they’re made and all that makes them what they are,” says Higinbotham. 

Because of the cutting-edge technology at Jefferson Lab, scientists from around the world come and propose experiments, only a third of which are accepted. “Leading scientists come, and the best of the best get to run their experiments,” says Higinbotham. “Typically, there is a five-year backlog at the lab, with four experimental research labs, A-D, running experiments simultaneously.”

While the research of Jefferson Lab may seem abstract and obscure, the experimental outcomes have significant and long-lasting practical implications and applications. “Basic research has always been about the spinoffs, and the byproduct of cutting-edge basic research is pushing the envelope; we learn more, and the country stays at the forefront of all these technologies,” says Higinbotham.

One such outcome, among so many others, is what’s referred to as particle detector technology — that is, the technology used for imaging, such as breast imaging for mammograms. This technology is also being used to analyze data for rapid detection of tumors, research that goes a long way toward advancements and breakthroughs in health and healing.

Perhaps some of the greatest work done at Jefferson Lab is mentoring up-and-coming student scholars in science and technology. The company gets to work with students from the Governor’s School, and partner with the Old Dominion University research experience program and Radford University’s national science program. “I love working with and mentoring students — not just Ph.D. students — but also high school students. Working with our young people and seeing what they get done always blows me away. It speaks volumes to the fact that we are in good hands for the future. I give them simple problems, and the questions they ask that spin into whole other projects is amazing,” says Higinbotham.

Without question, Jefferson Lab is doing amazing work, especially considering that a third of nuclear physicists in the United States are trained right here in Newport News.

And when Dr. Douglas Higinbotham goes to work, he gets to keep it all in the family as he works with his wife, Dr. Marcy Stutzman, a staff scientist of Jefferson Lab’s Center for Injectors. “She makes the electron beam and I catch it,” quips Higinbotham.

It appears that “A Whole New World” isn’t just the stuff of Aladdin’s magic carpet ride — with Jefferson Lab, every turn is a surprise. 

Jefferson Lab
Address: 12000 Jefferson Ave.,
Newport News, VA, 23606
Contact: Kandice Carter, public information lead
Phone: 757-269-7100

About Terilyn Goins, Ph.D. 63 Articles
Dr. Terilyn J. Goins is a motivational speaker/vocalist, trainer and coach. She offers a wide variety of training and motivational music programs. Goins creates programs that educate, inspire and challenge participants. Visit or reach her at 757-303-7807 or by email at