When Persis Drell took over 4 years ago as director of SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, California, she vowed that she wouldn't keep the job any longer than necessary. Brought in to steer the Department of Energy (DOE) lab through a tricky change of mission, Drell said she would stick around long enough only to get the job done. Yesterday, she fulfilled that pledge, as SLAC announced that Drell will step down once her replacement has been found, likely by next summer. Drell plans to return to research and teaching.
"I never aspired to be a lab director," says Drell, who is the daughter of prominent SLAC theorist and arms-control expert Sidney Drell. However, in 2007 SLAC faced the daunting challenge of changing from a lab dedicated primarily to particle physics to a multipurpose lab featuring the world's first hard x-ray laser for experiments in materials sciences, condensed-matter physics, structural biology, and other fields. Officials at the Department of Energy (DOE), which owns SLAC, and Stanford University in neighboring Palo Alto, which manages it, convinced Drell that she should shepherd the lab into its new future. Drell says she accepted the job "because the lab needed me, because Stanford needed me."
By all accounts, it was a difficult transition for SLAC, which currently has a staff of 1600 and an annual budget of $335 million. In 2008, budget cuts forced SLAC to shutter its PEP-II particle collider 6 months ahead of schedule, and some particle physicists grumbled that Drell did not do enough to stick up for their program. As the lab built the $420 million x-ray laser facility, Drell literally shuffled particle physicists out of their accustomed offices. In April 2009, the x-ray laser, dubbed the Linac Coherent Light Source, fired up and produce the world's first hard x-ray laser light on the first try.
The lab now has a much brighter future, says William Madia, Stanford's vice president for SLAC. While plans for the transition were in place before Drell accepted the directorship on 6 December 2007, she played a vital role in making it happen, Madia says. "The blueprint was there but she built the building," he says. "She's been a terrific lab director."
Raymond Orbach, director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas, Austin, and DOE's undersecretary for science under President George W. Bush, who urged Drell to take the directorship, agrees. "She just brings out the very best in her staff and her colleagues," Orbach says.
Drell, 55, who came to SLAC as associate director for research in 2002 after working as particle physicist at Cornell University, says she wants to be able to focus once again on a single scientific problem. "It's been a decade since I've actually had time to sit and concentrate on something, and I need that," Drell says. "That's what makes me tick." As a relatively young former lab director, Drell will also be a prime candidate for various and sundry advisory panels and review committees. But she says: "I'm really good at saying no."