Blending passions to craft a scientific career

December 8, 2022

Editor's note: This is the second installment of a five-part series profiling the researchers who work on ASU’s compact X-ray free electron laser. Read the other installments: Q&As with Regents Professor Petra Fromme, CXFEL Labs Director Robert Kaindl, Assistant Professor Sam Teitelbaum and CXFEL Chief Engineer Mark Holl.

William Graves’ two passions are enjoying the natural world and building complicated machines. So naturally, he’s a key player in Arizona State University’s efforts to build complex, compact X-ray equipment that will delve into nature’s mysteries. William Graves stands next to a compact X-ray light source. William Graves stands next to the compact X-ray light source at ASU's Compact X-ray Free Electron Laser Labs at the Biodesign Institute. Download Full Image

Graves, the chief scientist of ASU’s Compact X-ray Free Electron Laser (CXFEL) Labs at the Biodesign Institute, grew these passions at a young age in the woods and waters near his childhood home and in his metal shop class in high school.

Nowadays, when he’s not busy working at the CXFEL Labs, Graves still feeds those passions by gardening, exploring the outdoors and tinkering with various engines.

“I troubleshoot and fix a lot of stuff from cars to boats to particle accelerators. They're all the same in a way,” says Graves, who is also an associate professor in ASU’s Department of Physics.

Below, Graves answers questions about the joys and challenges of building the world’s first compact X-ray free electron laser and its compact X-ray light source.

Question: What is your role at CXFEL Labs, and what do you do on a day-to-day basis?

Answer: I am the chief scientist of CXFEL Labs. My job is to lead the team that conceives, then designs, builds and commissions new X-ray light sources. So far, we have built the compact X-ray light source (CXLS) over the last five years and are in the middle of commissioning it. We involve many students in these activities, and on a daily basis, I am training and directing the activities of five to 10 undergrad and grad students who are very active in running the particle accelerator and lasers that make up CXLS.

A: What are you known for?

Q: I design and build what are called high-brightness electron accelerators. These are the accelerators that power all of the new X-ray free electron lasers around the world. I am known for technical innovations that greatly shrink the size and cost of these machines.

Q: Who has had the biggest influence on you as a person?

A: My father set a great example; he was a nature lover first, chemical engineer second and loved his family dearly. My siblings and I had a great childhood out in the wild.

Q: What has been one challenge in the CXLS project, and how have you and the team overcome it?

A: Most new particle accelerators are designed and built at national labs with large staffs of scientists and engineers who are experts in the many technologies. When I started at ASU in 2015, we had no expertise in the needed areas. Since then, we seeded and grew our team from scratch, hiring and training staff, faculty and students to build up a world-class group of experts. The key ingredients have been patience, enthusiastic participation from employees and students, and strong support from Biodesign leadership and Knowledge Enterprise that provided the time and resources to see this effort through.

Q: Why is ASU the right place to build these instruments?

A: ASU faculty have pioneered science at major X-ray free electron laser (XFEL) facilities around the world that have had huge impact. But all of those facilities are located at national labs. We will be the first university to host a compact XFEL on campus, providing our faculty with a unique resource that brings their science home. We believe this is the start of a new paradigm that will enable many institutions to follow in our footsteps, providing novel instruments for scientific breakthroughs. Our culture of innovation puts us out front in these new fields.

Q: What were pivotal moments in your career that led you to where you are today?

A: My career has had three phases lasting 10 years each, give or take, that were important to where I am today: early career at Brookhaven National Lab working in a group with deep expertise in the physics of electron beams and X-ray emission, mid-career at MIT designing major X-ray light sources around the world, and finally my current late career overseeing ASU's effort to develop novel compact light sources.

Q: What motivates and excites you most about your work?

A: I love applying physics to complex instruments to come up with new scientific capabilities. It is so exciting to see our predictions and designs come to life.

Q: What potential application or aspect of the CXLS/CXFEL is most exciting to you?

A: We believe we will have full control of X-ray laser properties for the first time, producing beams that can probe the quantum limits of nature. This will be a boon to a wide range of imaginative scientists working to unlock the secrets of biology, chemistry, physics and new materials.

Biodesign Institute and its CXFEL Labs are partially supported by Arizona’s Technology and Research Initiative Fund. TRIF investment has enabled hands-on training for tens of thousands of students across Arizona’s universities, thousands of scientific discoveries and patented technologies, and hundreds of new startup companies. Publicly supported through voter approval, TRIF is an essential resource for growing Arizona’s economy and providing opportunities for Arizona residents to work, learn and thrive.

Mikala Kass

Communications Specialist, ASU Knowledge Enterprise


Philosophy transfer student learns the power of reflexivity

December 8, 2022

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2022 graduates.

Looking back at his time at Arizona State University, transfer student Bryson Brown believes the most important skill he learned is how to question his assumptions. Bryson Brown sitting on steps in front of Arizona State University in graduation gown surrounded by books This fall, Bryson Brown will receive a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, religion and society from ASU's New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences. Download Full Image

“Something that has changed my perspective and outlook more broadly has been getting in the habit of questioning my assumptions. I think that reflexivity is an essential skill in philosophy in general — being able to question your basic assumptions. Like most majors, when you start to do it pretty regularly, you start looking at things through that frame,” Brown said.

As he studied philosophy, religion and society at ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, Brown had the opportunity to dig deeper and explore historical, theoretical and practical perspectives.

Although he started his ASU journey as a biology major with the intention of going into the medical field, Brown quickly realized he was more passionate about philosophy and decided to change his major.

“I continued with the elective credits and realized biology was interesting, but I didn't have the drive or the passion for that to be successful,” he said. “I had to take a break in the middle of schooling, and when I came back, that's when I changed my major. I think that break allowed some time of reflection and sort of a pause to consider why I was actually wanting to go to school.”

Last summer, Brown had the opportunity to study abroad in Europe through New College’s Reading England's Literary Landscapes global education experience. For five weeks, Brown and his classmates stayed at Harlaxton Manor in England and studied the intersections of British literature and landscape, exploring the work of authors such as Emily Brontë, William Wordworth, Alfred Tennyson, Kazuo Ishiguro, Bram Stoker and Beatrix Potter.

“If a student is considering studying abroad, I would say there's nothing to consider, just do it,” Brown said. “You can’t explain the entire shift in cultural dynamics adequately without just experiencing it. To experience it is to go into it knowing that it's a different culture and to set aside the cultural perspective you have as an American and try to actually learn something.”

This fall, Brown will receive a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, religion and society. Here, he shares more about his experiences at ASU and what’s next for him:

Question: Did you experience any obstacles along your way? How did you overcome them?

Answer: I would say mental health and having to work full time would be the two main obstacles I faced. I work for the Title I department at Greenway High School and I spend my day in a math classroom helping freshmen with algebra. I think taking some time away from school allowed me to reprioritize my time to seek out therapy and the proper treatments to get everything taken care of.

Q: Did you receive any scholarships or financial support while at ASU? How did those impact your experience?

A: For this academic year, I received the ASU New College Dean Scholarship. I've also had loans and grants through FAFSA and then the help from family financially. Realistically, without any of that, I just wouldn't be in school. So the fact that people anonymously donate to a fund to support students of the humanities is incredibly impactful.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Professor Patricia Huntington has had the greatest influence on me as a young academic. I've continuously chosen to take classes with her. She takes a very critical edge to the writing you submit, but I wouldn't really have it any other way. I think it shows the dedication she has to academic pursuits. It's forced me to trust that there's a reason to the process and that the finished product is hopefully something indicative of that.

Q: What message or advice would you share for future first-year students?

A: The best piece of advice that I would give is to really be present in the moment. This experience flies by. It doesn't seem like it when you're constantly registering for another class and buying a new set of books and starting over every semester. It just completely flies by. So in between homework assignments, just sort of take a couple of minutes to reflect about the privilege that we have to be able to be at a top-graded university. Also, you're a lot more capable than you realize.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: After graduation, I plan on finishing graduate applications. I'm hoping to get into a doctoral program for philosophy sometime this next fall. My hope is to eventually have the opportunity to teach at the university.

Emily Balli

Manager of marketing and communications, New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences