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Rob McQueeney spends one or two lunch hours a week on the basketball court, playing against fellow scientists and researchers.

“I was a late-comer to basketball, because I didn’t play in high school,” says McQueeney. “But, now I have height, the one thing you can’t coach.”

While McQueeney was late to his lunchtime hobby, he knew early on that he wanted to spend the rest of his days as a scientist.

“One Christmas, my parents gave me a choice between getting an Atari video game system and a telescope, and I chose the telescope,” says McQueeney. “I was always interested in space and deep sea exploration.”

A fear of water ruled out studying the sea, so he double majored in chemistry and physics, and completed graduate school in physics at the University of Pennsylvania.

“High-temperature superconductors was a new field then. My graduate advisor was using neutron scattering to study superconductors, among other materials,” says McQueeney.  “And neutron scattering was what I grabbed onto.”

Neutron scattering helps scientists understand the atomic and magnetic structures of materials, along with how the atoms in the structure vibrate when energy is added to the material. Neutron scattering requires specialized, large-scale instruments that are only located at a few facilities throughout the country.

From graduate school, McQueeney accepted a postdoctoral research job at just such a facility, Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he was responsible for the Pharos spectrometer at the Lujan Center for neutron scattering.

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“I came to the Ames Laboratory and Iowa State University in 2003 because I knew both had long histories in neutron scattering,” says McQueeney. “But I soon realized that the more important asset here at the Ames Lab is the people. I get to work with scientists who focus on new materials. So, yes, I have my expertise in my neutron scattering, but the really valuable thing is when a new material is discovered, like the iron-based superconductors that were discovered in 2008, I’m able to collaborate with Ames Lab colleagues by saying, ‘these are the kinds of things we can learn by neutron scattering.’”

McQueeney travels to neutron scattering facilities to perform his experiments and collect data.

“The real work starts when you come back, analyzing the data and developing models,” says McQueeney. “I like that. Doing calculations and fitting models to data gives me the opportunity to really think about the scientific challenges I can help solve.”

“Getting to help answer scientific questions was a life-long goal of mine, and I’m happy where I am,” adds McQueeney. “But, that’s not to say there aren’t bigger projects to take on out there, like making sure that our neutron scattering research community is a healthy one.”

McQueeney is now serving in a special Department of Energy Office of Science post to support the neutron scattering program, a job that requires visiting scattering facilities with his “DOE hat on.”

Whether he visits with his DOE hat on or his Ames Laboratory hat on, McQueeney always remembers to bring something else: his basketball shoes.

“A lot of guys at the Spallation Neutron Source at Oak Ridge play ball, and I like to get into a few games there, too.”

~ by Breehan Gerleman Lucchesi