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Diamond Girl: Leslie Wilson sparkles in the Nanofabrication Lab

Leslie Wilson, Master Technician in the Nanofabrication Research Laboratory, with a diamond foil she fabricated in the Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences clean room. Credit: Carlos Jones, ORNL/U.S. Department of Energy

If diamonds are a girl’s best friend — as Carol Channing and Marilyn Monroe breathlessly crooned — then Leslie Wilson has been surrounded by some of her best friends for the past 20 years.

Wilson, a master technician in the Nanofabrication Research Laboratory in the Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences, has been fabricating nanodiamond foils to aid in scientific research since she started at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 2003.

“I pattern very thin, about one micrometer, free-standing diamond foils,” Wilson said. A micrometer is about the width of spider silk. “When I started this work, it was all theoretical. I started making diamond foils before the Spallation Neutron Source (SNS) was completed. We needed something that would last, and at the time, we didn’t know if this would.” But the one micrometer-thick foil lasted for that first run, and diamond foils have been used ever since that time 20 years ago.

Wilson fabricates these foils by patterning a silicon substrate with corrugations, which aids in stiffening the freestanding diamond. Once the substrate is patterned, she deposits the diamond using microwave plasma assisted chemical vapor deposition, which basically shoots a plasma onto the silicon and deposits the diamond. She removes the silicon, and the diamond foil remains.

At SNS, a DOE Office of Science user facility next door to the CNMS building where Wilson works, scientists use the world’s most powerful neutron source to study all types of matter. SNS uses a beam accelerated to almost the speed of light to generate a pulse that passes through the diamond foil. The diamond foil is used to strip off the electrons, leaving a proton beam that strikes a target full of liquid mercury. Scientists use neutrons to probe inside materials, but it’s the diamond foil that makes the proton beam possible. In June, Wilson won a Physical Sciences Directorate Technicians Award for her cross-directorate work for nanodiamond stripper foil production.

Wilson also fabricates devices for other scientists and users from around the world. She recently coated diamond nanowires that a research group was using for sensing dopamine in tissue. She also fabricates thin silicon nitride membranes that researchers use to study materials under different environmental conditions in the electron microscope to see how the sample responds.

“It gives you a sense of fulfillment, working on things you know will impact other people,” Wilson said.

Science is in her blood. Wilson’s father, Lee Heatherly, was an ORNL researcher in materials science and engineering. She grew up in Campbell County, Tennessee, not far from the lab. After high school, she attended the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and received her bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor in chemistry.

“This was my first real job out of college,” Wilson said, adding that she started in the Chemical Sciences Division and moved to CNMS in 2016.

“I work with a wonderful group of people,” she said. “I love it.” She points to Section Head Scott Retterer and to her supervisor, Steven Randolph, as mentors. Robert Shaw, a now retired scientist in ORNL’s Chemical Sciences Division, was instrumental in educating her on the job.

Now she has a family of her own with two teenage children. Married more than 20 years, Wilson enjoys gardening and crafting. She also teaches at her local church. The family lives north of Knoxville, about an hour from the lab.

“The area is beautiful,” she said. “There are mountains, lakes, the atmosphere is great and the people are friendly. It’s wonderful here.” And, perhaps most important of all, she is surrounded by diamonds.

UT-Battelle manages ORNL for DOE’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit —Lawrence Bernard