Meet Kunal Shroff, NSLS-II Controls Engineer

Shroff acts as an ambassador to bridge the communication gap between humans and machines

A man wearing glasses and a blue collared shirt smiles with multiple computer screens in the backgro enlarge

Kunal Shroff stands in front of the NSLS-II control room monitors displaying the status of the accelerator. (Jessica Rotkiewicz/Brookhaven National Laboratory)

Kunal Shroff has been working at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory for 16 years. He started at the National Synchrotron Light Source II (NSLS-II), a DOE Office of Science user facility at Brookhaven Lab, when it was first being commissioned. It was his first job after earning his graduate degree from Stony Brook University. Before settling down on Long Island, Shroff spent his life in India, where he also pursued his undergraduate studies. With a background in electrical and computer engineering, Shroff was drawn to the complex infrastructure and interesting challenges of keeping the light source running and its data flowing. Currently, Shroff is a controls engineer in the Data Science & Systems Integration (DSSI) program. His work is focused on maintaining and improving the Experimental Physics and Industrial Control System (EPICS) software and its associated tools and services. This toolkit helps scientists convert, filter, image, and analyze data, automate operations, monitor equipment, and more.

How would you describe your role at NSLS-II?

DSSI stands for data science and systems integration, and what we do is an intersection of both of those things. We’re focused on the data, but I am more focused on where that data comes from. When you’re collecting data during an experiment, you want to be aware of everything else that’s happening in your machine. You want to make sure that you’re in control of each tool that makes data collection possible. This includes, but isn’t limited to, getting each of the components in the right state and getting the timing right, all while keeping an eye out for a host of environmental variables, like temperature and vacuum. The better controlled those things are, the better the data will be. Most of my work is associated with the control system that modulates these variables. I figure out how users communicate with the control system and how that information is then visualized and optimized.

How does your work help scientists do their experiments?

NSLS-II is made up of hundreds, if not thousands, of moving parts. In a way, I act like a translator between the people performing experiments and their tools. It’s my job to understand and then “speak” to all these interdependent pieces that make the science here possible. If you think of these motors, vacuum gauges, mirrors, and other components like instruments, it’s almost like conducting an orchestra. When each of these pieces is in harmony, you can see some amazing things. Some of the most interesting projects happen when members of the DSSI team, beamline scientists, and users bring in their different skillsets to solve a problem or create new features and functionalities. We come with different perspectives and talents, but we have similar goals.

What kinds of challenges do you face in your role?

In a cutting-edge facility like NSLS-II, there are so many variables and moving parts within a control system. One of the broader challenges we face is making a robust, reliable, and scalable system that’s also user friendly. Another challenge is being able to log as much data as possible. It’s not just the data coming from the experiment that’s important, but the bits of metadata about all of the instruments in the facility itself, data about things like alarms or how a system has been behaving that we need to capture. While these numbers may not end up in a Nature publication, these data are extremely useful. It gives us a more complete picture of how everything operates within the light source. This makes it easier to identify areas of improvement and increase overall efficiency and stability. To us, understanding all of the complex systems that make the science possible is a science in itself.

Which projects were particularly rewarding to work on?

Today, there are pieces of open-source software that I helped develop that are not only used at NSLS-II but also at several other facilities all over the world. It’s a very unique experience and opportunity to be able to work with people across different countries and different cultures. We have people using this software that work at small universities and also giant industrial facilities. We provide this free, accessible software, and in return we get a community of people with diverse personal, professional, and academic backgrounds from around the world who provide meaningful feedback and contributions. It’s one of the best parts of my job.

One of the software packages I worked on, a toolkit called “Phoebus,” is a good example. It’s basically a framework that allows scientists and engineers to look at how they control the beamline or visualize the physical status of the beamline. It also allows them to govern and guide the operations of the beamline. If you go to any of the beamlines and look at the images on their monitors, most of them are displaying this tool.

Activities that build community are one of the most enjoyable parts of what I do. I’m very excited to help organize and facilitate this year’s EPICS Codeathon & Documentathon, which is being held at Brookhaven Lab. We’ll be hosting over two dozen people from scientific facilities around the world to exchange ideas and knowledge in order to advance the development of EPICS.

What drew you to NSLS-II?

There are not that many light sources around the world, so I’m grateful for the opportunity to encounter these novel challenges that you might not find anywhere else. I think that was the first thing that drew me towards this role. I was given a chance to deal with some rather interesting and unique problems and contribute to their equally interesting solutions.

I was also drawn to the variety of challenges that NSLS-II is tackling, like finding clean energy solutions to address environmental and ecological issues, discovering novel materials with unique applications, and investigating treatments for debilitating diseases. These difficult problems are addressed collaboratively rather than competitively. This collaborative environment, in conjunction with being able to work with some of the smartest, brightest people, was a very unique opportunity that I couldn’t pass up.

How do you spend your time outside of the lab?

My partner and I are both first generation immigrants. She works for a nonprofit organization in New York City and is also very passionate about what she does. We’re currently raising 11-month-old twins and also have a dog that we adopted. We, especially our dog, love living on Long Island. He loves the beach and swimming in the ocean. I really enjoy spending quality time with them.

I definitely strive for work/life balance, but it’s hard not to have one spill into the other sometimes. I have a really good work environment, and I have made some wonderful friends here at the Lab. I feel like they enrich my personal life as well. Collaborating on these big projects together, we sometimes just feel like a group of old friends. It’s a similar feeling to when I spend time with my friends in India.

It’s funny; being a control freak can be seen as a personality flaw, but I was able to manifest it into a fruitful career as a controls engineer.

Brookhaven National Laboratory is supported by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy. The 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

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