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Joshua Senecal Finds Balance at NIF

Lawrence Livermore’s National Ignition Facility (NIF), the world’s most energetic laser system, is made up of much more than beamlines. With over 400 shots completed annually, NIF’s day-to-day operations require sophisticated computing systems to ensure experimental integrity. The NIF Computing (NIFC) team plays an integral role in this smoothly running facility, and computer scientist Joshua Senecal supports multiple operational areas.

Tens of thousands of optics—mirrors, lenses, crystals—guide NIF’s 192 beams into the target chamber. Each optical element must be evaluated for damage caused by debris or repeated use. To inspect optics, NIF scientists rely on analysis tools developed in-house by Senecal and NIFC colleagues. The team’s tools are based in Perl, MATLB, and Java and customized for NIF’s specific needs. Senecal notes, “Our systems extend the lifetimes of the optics by finding flaws on the optic surface and identifying those that need to be repaired.”

Senecal also manages the software used to analyze images of fusion capsules before the capsules are integrated into a target assembly. Capsules are examined with an automated confocal microscope, which captures imaging data at low (50x) and high (100x) magnification. As the system’s sole developer, he ensures that anomalies in surface characteristics, such as height or color, are detected and reported.

Beyond NIF, Senecal draws upon his background in amateur radio while volunteering for the Laboratory’s disaster preparedness plan. “As a Volunteer Emergency Radio Group member, my responsibility is to provide an alternate communication path between assembly points, zone control points, and the Laboratory’s Emergency Operations Center,” he explains. “Radio operators can activate during an actual event or an exercise.”

Senecal’s history with the Laboratory began in 2000, when he interned over the summer. The following year, he returned on a graduate research fellowship and later completed doctoral work in data compression while transitioning to full-time employee. He gives back to Livermore’s Computation community by participating in and co-organizing seasonal hackathons, and values the Laboratory’s equal emphasis on career and personal development. “The biggest advantage of working at the Laboratory is the great work–life balance,” he says. “As a husband and father, I appreciate the flexibility to deal with everyday family responsibilities, and I can work an honest day and then devote time to my family.” Senecal speaks, reads, and writes Korean and coaches a swim team in his spare time. He also enjoys gardening, cycling, reading, and horology (timekeeping science).