Feature Story

Remote work suits Jefferson Lab technical designer

Mindy Leffel says working from home during the pandemic has been a learning process, but has only motivated her to prove herself

DOE/Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned workplaces everywhere upside down, prompting countless brainstorming sessions on how to make work environments safer or whether jobs might be done just as well from home.

The Department of Energy's Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility -- dedicated to sussing out and exploring the elusive subatomic particles that make up the universe -- is no exception.

When the lab assigned technical designer Mindy Leffel to start working remotely from her home in Newport News back in March, she thought her small dining room table would suffice for her electronics work and the many hand tools she uses to populate circuit boards and fabricate cables for the detectors and other accelerator equipment used in the lab's experimental halls.

So, she set to work on 1,100 divider cables that will be used for the lab's Neutral-Particle Spectrometer (NPS).

"And I quickly realized, 'Oh, we're not going back anytime soon,'" said Leffel. "This little table's not going to cut it."

Leffel soon ended up installing a 6-foot table in a spare room to give her the space to spread out and create "a kind of work away from work."

While some remote workers might long for the day they can finally get back to the office and to colleagues and a familiar onsite camaraderie, Leffel isn't one of them.

She has two "new co-workers" now, her dogs Molly and Matilda, who lie quietly at her feet in her new workroom, flanking her on either side.

"They're the best, because they don't talk back, they don't complain, they're just glad you're here," Leffel said.

Like many other house pets, Molly and Matilda have had to adjust to a new normal, too.

"They've got their person," Leffel said. "And when you're ready to walk out the door they're like, 'Where do you think you're going? You live here now. This is our place. We're all here.'

"I think they like it. They're getting more walks than they've ever gotten in their lives."

A weekly group meeting with Jefferson Lab colleagues is done virtually now, and should Leffel need a particular tool from the lab, someone will either drop it by her house -- staying the requisite six feet away with masks on -- or she'll make an appointment with a supervisor to go pick it up.

"People are realizing what they can do," Leffel said. "And, to me, it's kind of like something positive hopefully coming out of something negative -- and the fact that they're realizing that a lot of this work could be done remotely."

She has encountered few downsides to remote work, although one minor mechanical glitch did cause some temporary grief and a little embarrassment.

One morning as she made the six-step commute to her home office, Leffel discovered the old doorknob had seized up and wouldn't turn.

For a mechanical wiz, this didn't appear to be a real problem. She removed the knob's screws and used the screwdriver to try to trip the lock. No luck. Unfortunately, the door hinges were located inside the locked room, so she checked the windows to see if she could climb in.

"If you can get inside, you can just take the hinges off and Bob's-your-uncle," Leffel said. "Easy."

But the windows were locked.

For eight years, Leffel has been the handywoman in her own home and has never had to call in a repairman. Until that day.

The repairman ended up removing the doorjamb on one side to gain entry.

"He said he'd never had to do that before, so I didn't feel as bad," Leffel said. "I didn't think about taking the doorjamb off, or I probably would've done it.

"I think this was payback: Growing up, I would reverse my sister's doorknob, wait for her to go in her room, and then I'd lock her in."

Working remotely has also taught her a little more self-reliance. In the lab workshop, she could rely as needed on a group member to draw a diagram so she could visualize what was needed from her. Getting descriptions over the phone without a visual reference isn't the same. It forced her out of her comfort zone.

"You learn, you figure things out," Leffel said. "I probably learned more, because I had to figure more things out for myself versus relying on somebody else."

One chassis she worked on, for example, had to be tested for continuity. Normally, the engineer that designed it would test it, but Leffel used a spreadsheet to cross-reference the connections and managed it herself.

Her favorite parts of working from home, she said, are having a window and greater independence.

"Just being able to see outside," Leffel explained. "Our building is just a big metal building, no windows at all. Sometimes you just want to know, is the sun out? Is it raining? Are there birds flying around? You just feel disconnected."

The view from her home office is green space. Occasionally, she's watched her neighbors outside, playing with their young kids.

"It's like you're alone, but you're not alone," Leffel said. "And it was just nice to be able to see what's going on in your own neighborhood."

Remote work has also encouraged her to work even harder to prove herself.

"I want to be sure that they know that I'm doing what I say I'm doing," she said. "And know that they trust me to do it. It's freedom. It's independence. It's just nice."

She expects to finish up her project for the Neutral-Particle Spectrometer this month. It will be used in Experimental Hall C and features five fully approved experiments. The NPS science program is supported by the National Science Foundation.

In accelerator physics, a spectrometer is a device that can precisely measure the energies or masses of the particles in a beam. Charged particles produced or scattered by high-energy or nuclear reactions are guided through a spectrometer, much like light through a prism, and then analyzed. The NPS features a neutral particle detector consisting of up to 1,080 lead-tungstate crystals. The NPS offers a unique opportunity for precision measurements with neutral particles, and plays a key role in confirming the understanding of scattering mechanisms that are essential for the lab's 12 GeV GPD/TMD program.

Leffel has been at Jefferson Lab on and off for 20 years. She was first hired as a temp in 1999 at the age of 19, then was brought on board permanently in 2006.

She has tinkered with cars, devices and electronics since she was a child, fascinated with taking things apart to see how they worked. She enjoyed helping her dad work on the family car, so she told her high school guidance counselor she wanted to be a mechanic, but the counselor dissuaded her.

"She was like, 'No, girls don't do that,'" Leffel recalled. "In spite of her, I kind of followed my dream, anyway, and ended up in a place where I can still do work that I love. I'm grateful it worked out."

By Tamara Dietrich

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Jefferson Science Associates, LLC, a joint venture of the Southeastern Universities Research Association, Inc. and PAE, manages and operates the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, or Jefferson Lab, for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.

DOE's 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, visit https://energy.gov/science.


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