Aina Cohen, a senior staff scientist at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, is the latest recipient of the Farrel W. Lytle Award. This award celebrates achievements in synchrotron-based science and efforts to foster collaboration to make the best use of experimental time for both staff and visiting scientists at the lab’s Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL). The award was presented to Cohen during the 2019 LCLS/SSRL Annual Users’ Meeting Sept. 24-27.
“I consider it a privilege and honor to work with incredibly talented and dedicated colleagues in a facility committed to the advancement of knowledge by scientific research, the majority of this funded by the U.S. taxpayers,” Cohen says. “I have therefore strived to use the resources we have as efficiently and effectively as possible to provide flexible and productive facilities for our user community. It means the world to me to be recognized by the members of the SSRL user community for this effort and the accomplishments I share with the other members of the SSRL-SMB group and our collaborators.”
Cohen co-leads SSRL’s Structural Molecular Biology (SMB) Division, as well as a group within the division that develops facilities for using X-ray crystallography to determine the atomic 3D structures of large molecules, such as proteins, that are critical to biological processes, human health, development of new medicines and understanding environmental issues.
Leaving her mark on SSRL
“Using keen management skills and her science and engineering background, Aina runs a myriad of projects and support staff, all with the goal of providing the best facilities possible for the research community,” says staff scientist and SMB colleague Jennifer Wierman. “Keeping SSRL at the forefront of X-ray macromolecular crystallography, Aina routinely spearheads collaborations and innovations crucial to our vision of excellence.”
Cohen is being honored for many impressive achievements over the last two decades. Perhaps two of her most innovative accomplishments working with her colleagues and team members at SSRL are to fully automate the macromolecular crystallography experiment including the implementation of a robotic sample exchange system and to develop the world’s first fully remote accessible structural biology beamlines.
The SSRL macromolecular crystallography group currently supports four beamlines for general users, soon to become five, where experiments are carried out to determine the structures of macromolecules. Over time, Cohen gathered an expert team of scientists and technicians to provide the first fully automated crystallography beamlines in the world. She also led the development of many devices and technologies that are central to delivering samples into the X-ray beam.
As a result, most of SSRL’s crystallography users can ship samples to SSRL and access some of the most advanced experimental tools and methods remotely. They don’t have to make the trip to SLAC because Cohen and team have put together robots, software and automation to make the remote experience completely user-friendly and effective.
Cohen led the development of the experimental end station of the highly productive micro-focus beamline 12-2 (that produces about 120 new structures each year) and her team is currently commissioning SSRL’s brightest macromolecular crystallography beamline 12-1.
Cohen has also driven developments for serial femtosecond crystallography at the MFX station at SLAC’s Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS), and bridging between the LCLS (X-ray free electron laser) and SSRL (synchrotron) experiments.
High praise from academia
“Aina is phenomenally busy but she also cares deeply about her users and staff,” wrote Edward Snell, president and CEO of Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute, in his recommendation letter. “She has a positive attitude and is a joy to work with. She is a very effective manager and privately her staff praises her. Many other users I know personally have a similar opinion. She presents a highly visible and professional view of SSRL to the external community and is a credit to the organization.”
William Weis, a professor at SLAC and Stanford, wrote: “Aina is widely respected by the world-wide synchrotron community for her contributions and collaborative spirit. She is regularly invited to present her innovations at national and international meetings, and is quick to exchange ideas with other beamline scientists to the benefit of all. On the personal side, Aina is a friendly and calm presence, even during tense times during experiments.”
Cohen did her first diffraction experiments and became interested in pursuing a career as a crystallographer as an undergraduate in Professor Robert Snyder’s materials characterization course and while working on her senior thesis with Professor Steven Fukuda at SUNY Alfred University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in materials engineering and chemistry. She joined the laboratory of Professor Bryan Craven where she used X-ray and neutron diffraction to study the charge density distribution in crystals, earning a PhD in crystallography at the University of Pittsburgh.
She came to SLAC more than 20 years ago starting as an engineering physicist and soon began supporting four beamlines almost completely on her own. This role transitioned into her position as a staff scientist, and eventual co-leader, of the macromolecular crystallography team.
Farrel Lytle, a former Boeing researcher and long-time SSRL user now in his 80s, wrote in an email, “As I read the recommendations for Dr. Aina Cohen to receive this award, I had this wish. I wished that I was still in active research and could work with her help, using the facilities she has worked so hard to develop.”
In contrast to some facilities that leave users to fend for themselves, he said, the SSRL macromolecular crystallography group lists 18 people on its website, including Cohen, who can be contacted for help with experiments. “In other words, instant help when the user needs it,” Lytle wrote, adding, “In every way Dr. Cohen exemplifies the qualities for which this award is presented. Congratulations, well done.”
SSRL is a DOE Office of Science user facility. The beamline developments described above have been funded by NIH-NIGMS and DOE-BER.
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