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National Labs Respond to COVID-19

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Joining me today. Chris Fall Director of the Department of Energy Office of Science Chris. Welcome to the show. Thanks or currently facing the threat of cove in nineteen which the World Health Organization has classified as a pandemic when people think of the to an infectious disease like this they usually think of agency is like the CDC or the Department of Health and Human Services. How is the Department of Energy? Been involved in the response to the virus. Well first and foremost the Department of Energy's responding by taking care of its people. I mean we've got a lot of people not just here in Washington but around the country at our labs and sites our first responsibility and what? We're very focused on is making sure they're okay contingency planning for what might come but in any nationally sensitive situation emergency or otherwise. The Department of Energy is here because we've got some responsibilities to the country into the federal system. One is energy right. Our responsibility is to make sure the electrical grid is resilient and working and working with the the private sector that runs that and other elements of of the energy system. Another thing we do is we maintain develop and build the nation's strategic deterrent. It's not something you just walk away from so we need to make sure that's okay. The materials involved with that or secure and so forth and of course we do a lot of science and technology for the country. And so that's an opportunity and in one way that we're responding in particular to this crisis so tell me more about the work that the scientists at our national labs have been doing to understand Covet nineteen sure great question and boy. They've been fantastic in two ways one. Is You know they're always doing science? And technology including on things like viruses. And so they're ready to respond to something like this particular outbreak but they have been doing some particular things. One thing they've been doing is using our x Ray light sources to take pictures essentially of the virus understand the structure of it. And that's a one way to understand how we could impact at virus with drugs for example to shut it down Hand in hand with taking pictures of the next light sources modeling structure of the virus on a computer. We have phenomenal supercomputers we use them for things like modeling viruses. We have the capability to do. Some biochemical characterization in models of disease for example is basic research about how viruses spread in cells and tissues. And how we might measure that so things that could lead to better testing or to vaccines and then the other thing. We do which is actually really interesting as we use supercomputers for something else and as evidence so we can model the spread of a disease like Cova Nineteen in population in our country in the world and so forth and so we use our computers for that four ways. I'm sure there are some others. I'm not thinking of but for big Broadway's that our scientists are working to help with code nineteen right and this is happening so obviously we have seventeen national labs. This is this is happening all across the country at all these different labs who are doing work in these different fields correct. Yeah that's right a different labs have different capabilities but we do have light sources at a number of labs. You've got supercomputers at a number of labs some of those are off society slabs that work more directly with me some than others nuclear labs. They still do work in biology. So not every lab is working on this. Not Every lab has the capability but they are all participating together in a working group that we've put together ask questions. Hey have you thought of this? Did you try that? And experts from all of those laboratories are getting together to answer those questions in response to this virus outbreak. And I think that leads into point I wanted to make about the national labs. Why are they uniquely suited to respond to a crisis challenge such as this? So we do have again. We know we've got When we're talking about a specific crisis like this virus we do have some very special capabilities to handle dangerous things including viruses. Let me talk more. Generally the Department of Energy has some sport. I like to call a super powers when it comes to science and technology and one of those. Is these big user facilities when I say an x Ray Light source? We're talking about something. That's vast bigger than a football field. Could be much bigger than a football field. In diameter a synchrotron that produces special x rays or other instruments are user facilities or one superpower. Scientists scale There are a lot of agencies that are part of the US Science and Technology System do science that fund science uniquely really among all of these agencies is our ability to do big science. Lots of people working on a problem. They know how to work together. They know how to share information and data. So that's a superpower. And then the other thing we really bring relatively uniquely because we have these laboratories we have these physical places that are doing. All different kinds of work is convergent. So you know at one laboratory. We may have biologists. Yes but we have chemists and mathematicians and computer scientists and and physicist and all of those people bring different perspectives to a problem. And so convergence is again is a superpower of the Department of Energy so convergence science at scale and then these world unique really user facilities that we build and maintain and operate on behalf of the country. Can we talk a little bit about pass challenges that the national labs have helped us tackle as anything come to mind you know at the scale of of scientific or human health challenges that the labs have responded to in this way in the past? Let me start by saying. There's something we did that. It wasn't really about a human health challenge but it has completely revolutionized our understanding of humans and human health and human biology. And that's the human genome project. The Department of Energy started the human genome project and then went on to collaborate with the National Institutes of Health. To scale it up and and sequencing entire human genome and now of course that's become routine but we've been in similar situations before and we responded pretty much in the same way when there was the Zeka outbreak when there was the Abullah outbreak are x Ray light sources were used to characterize the pathogens. Take pictures of it we modeled. He is on computers. We did the same epidemiology modeling. We know how to do this stuff. And so when these crises occur people calling the Department of Energy and the disease is clearly a global threat so how is the Department of Energy Coordinating with other agencies? Both at home and abroad sure. That's a great question Let me let me say there are two parts that we started out by talking about responsibilities of the Department of Energy so obviously we are connected with other agencies like homeland security or FARC on things like the electrical grid and making sure we have power and you know if those people get sick or impacted. We have backups. For All of that. We obviously are in constant contact regarding as most agencies. Are this emergency response. Stuff was going on with our people. What's going on? With our sites folks like Homeland Security folks like health and Human Services that are coordinating. The federal government response plugged into all of that and working with them and of course their science and technology and so already we have a long standing deep relationship with the National Institutes of health. I talked about these. Phenomenal world-class user facilities that we support while they're used by the National Institutes of health. All the time routinely notches for a crisis like this But we're absolutely plugged in. You can imagine a crisis late covet. Nineteen a lot of folks are asking what we could do. Including scientists and across the federal government we are coordinated talking to those folks who is best equipped to answer a particular question. How can the Department of Energy help? So we're right there at the tape in times like this. What is something that inspires you or gives you confidence about our ability to rise? This challenge sure That's an easy one. It's the people is the people in the Department of Energy. I gotTa Tell You And not just you know here in headquarters but out across the labs and sites you know. This outbreak popped up and it wasn't a What should we do? Can we go home? sort of Response it was. How can we help and it was more than just? How can we help? Here's all the things that we think that we can do to help. How do we get started You know can we move forward and so that inspires a lot of confidence? When when people see a problem they don't run from it. They run to it and want to know how to help solve IT Director Chris. Fall with the Department of Energy Office of Science. Thank you very much for your time. Thank yous

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