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Sarah Cousineau: Accelerating the field of physics, literally

Researcher spotlight: Sarah Cousineau

October 17, 2016 – Accelerator physicist Sarah Cousineau has dedicated her career to unraveling the world’s mysteries through physics. A large part of solving those mysteries, she says, means getting the next generation of physicists ready for the same challenge.

Cousineau is a group leader in the Research Accelerator Division at the Spallation Neutron Source (SNS), located at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. She is responsible for overseeing and coordinating beam physics research efforts for the SNS accelerator—a system designed to focus and propel protons down a long arrangement of accelerating structures and magnets into a liquid mercury target, creating neutrons for scientific research. 

Cousineau recently took on a management position but continues to spend much of her time mentoring students. “I think it’s an essential part of our job to reach out to junior scientists and help them enter the field,” she said.

Cousineau says she developed an interest in science during high school, but became especially passionate about it after taking Astronomy 101 as an undergrad at the University of New Mexico. Her enthusiasm for astronomy is what inspired her to major in physics, studying many topics such as mechanics, electromagnetism and quantum physics.

While physicists are usually noted for being either experimentalists or theorists, some, like Cousineau, have the opportunity to do both.

“Accelerator physics brings all of those together into one discipline,” Cousineau said. “You sort of have to know all of it to understand what’s going on in an accelerator. You have the opportunity to do the theoretical, the experimental, and the computational together.”

In addition to her role at ORNL, Cousineau holds a joint faculty position at the University of Tennessee, which she says comes with a number of benefits.

“The biggest benefit is being able to fund and advise students,” she said. “It creates a stronger connection between the lab personnel and the UT students when you have someone at the lab that can advise them and sit on student committees.”

Not only does her joint faculty position offer her better access to students, it helps to fund student research as well.

“It offers the ability to obtain funding from sources like the National Science Foundation to get those students to come out here, capitalize on our resources, and do really great research,” she said.

Over the years, Cousineau’s path has led to many honors and distinguished awards. She received the Mentor Excellence Award from the DOE Office of Science twice, once in 2003 and again in 2008. Later she was awarded the 2015 ORNL Mentor of Undergraduate Student Researchers. Early on, she was awarded a Women in Science Fellowship as an undergrad at Indiana University. “I’d like to see more women take advantage of those types of opportunities in the future,” she said.    

As one of the few women in physics she notes that in recent years, the gender gap in fields like biology and social sciences have been slowly closing, but the field of physics still has some catching up to do. She speculates the reason for that might have to do with a few misperceptions about physicists.

“I think when junior scientists in high school or undergraduates think about what physicists do, they envision a dark lab, nobody around, long hours, but in reality, the atmosphere is much better than that,” she said. “It’s much more social. It’s a team atmosphere, and it’s exciting.”

In fact, Cousineau thinks the future for women in physics is getting better every day.

“There are many opportunities for women in physics right now, because we’re trying hard to recruit,” she said. “I think the future is really bright for women in science, and they should capitalize on these opportunities.”

“If I had one thing to say to female scientists hoping to enter the physics world, I would tell them to have confidence, to take chances, and to try new things. I think they’ll surprise themselves.”

The Spallation Neutron Source is a DOE Office of Science User Facility. UT-Battelle manages ORNL for the DOE's Office of Science. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit — by Chris Botsis

See Sarah Cousineau on YouTube here: