The annual Women in Cable Television leadership conference, held February 2007 in New York City, offered a lunchtime panel discussion billed as "Rarified Air: One of a Kind Leaders." The panel featured the founder of the USA Network, Kay Koplovitz; world-renowned billiard player a.k.a. the "Black Widow," Jeanette Lee; the country's only female master sommelier, Andrea Immer Robinson; and Michelle Buchanan, associate laboratory director for physical sciences at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Buchanan even got to play a little pool on stage.
Buchanan has often found herself in rare company. From being the first woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin with a doctorate in analytical chemistry to serving as the first female associate lab director at ORNL, she has surpassed her own early career aspirations and helped pave the way for the growing number of women who follow in her footsteps.
Her work has not gotten any easier. Buchanan has faced the challenge of flat dollars for the fundamental and applied research programs she manages, ranging from physics, materials science and chemistry to ORNL's nanoscience center. At the same time, breakthrough developments in the basic sciences are more desperately needed than ever to help meet the energy challenges of the coming decades.
Buchanan serves both as a leader at ORNL and in her field. She has been active in professional societies, as a journal editor and on advisory boards of a number of journals and university and national laboratory programs. She also helped the Department of Energy coordinate a series of workshops on targeted energy issues to identify technology gaps and the fundamental research needed to deliver revolutionary advances in areas such as hydrogen, electrical energy storage and materials in extreme environments.—Larisa Brass
In an interview with the ORNL Review, Buchanan offered her perspective on the need for next-generation research to solve some of America's grand scientific challenges.
Q. This issue of the Review is devoted to the basic sciences, and in particular the physical sciences, which have lately taken a hit in government funding. What's your elevator speech for explaining the relevance of the research programs you manage?
The physical sciences are at the heart of the Laboratory's endeavors because we do the fundamental science that delivers materials and chemical processes needed in every area of science. In all the workshops I have helped coordinate for the Department of Energy, it soon became obvious that just tweaking today's technologies will not be enough to meet our future energy needs. The entire world is demanding plentiful, cheap and reliable sources of energy, and despite increasing prices, energy demands continue to rise. We cannot maintain this trajectory, especially when you take into account the environmental toll of the world's growing energy demand. There are short-term fixes, such as alternative fuels. But in the long-term we need to transition to a carbon-free energy environment. To do that we must break through the technology bottlenecks we face. The bottom line is that energy is an inextricably linked part of security, environment and the economy. A year ago, people were saying, "Oh , we'll never reach $100 for a barrel of oil," and now the cost has risen to more than $100. We need to act now. We need to invest in technologies that can be deployed immediately, as well as in the long-term fundamental research that will transform our lives over the next 50 years.
Q. ORNL does a range of research, from very basic to applied, and your programs, in particular, encompass that breadth. You hear arguments on what the role of a national lab should be, and often people either say the emphasis should be more basic or more applied. What's your take?
I see this as a cyclic process. Fundamental research drives advances in technology. But needs in the technology area also inspire basic research. To be successful, basic research and applied research must be closely linked. Here at ORNL, our programs are well integrated. We've had some incredible successes in which fundamental science has led to breakthroughs in energy technology.
One example is the development of nickel aluminides here that now are being applied to rollers in steel mills. They have saved industry millions of dollars and many jobs because of what was initially very fundamental research. Another example developed here is a chelator, or separation-type molecule, that will be used to capture cesium ions with a very high degree of efficiency from contaminated underground water at DOE's Savannah River site in South Carolina. In the area of mass spectrometry, concepts developed in the basic energy sciences program are now being applied in biology laboratories and, in particular, at the Bioenergy Science Center at ORNL, where researchers are working to derive biofuel from plants such as poplar trees and switchgrass.
Q. This issue of the Review is devoted to "extreme" science. What is your definition of extreme science, and why is Oak Ridge National Laboratory a good place to do this work?
In much of the research we do now, we are pushing materials and chemical processes to extremes in energy environments. If you are developing solar cells, you want something that is going to withstand years of the sun's blazing heat and light without having to be replaced. You want new materials that have the strength to withstand extreme stress for a long time. If you look at materials for conducting electricity, the goal is to achieve higher voltages and higher currents without resistive losses or material failure. Now, materials in general can reach only about a tenth of their theoretical strength. We have to understand at the molecular level what causes materials to fail and how we can prevent failure or even develop materials that will self-repair. These are the types of extremes advanced materials must be able to withstand in future energy technologies.
Q. How is the field of science changing for women?
I was the first woman to earn a doctorate in analytical chemistry at Wisconsin. Now, a lot more women are being trained in the physical sciences. Only a very small percentage of women are full professors in chemistry. Out of 200 chemists in the National Academy of Sciences, only a handful are women. Those numbers will increase, I think, as time goes on. I'm encouraged by the fact that increasing numbers of women are going to graduate schools—30 to 40% and maybe more.
Q. Is integrating women into these scientific research areas a natural development at this point or should more be done to open doors for women?
We need to recruit broadly to find the best and brightest staff. We need to mentor young women coming into college and tell them the benefits of a career in research. I think that a lot of times when students are in graduate school the only career possibility they see is to become a research professor. They don't see other opportunities such as conducting research at a national laboratory.
Q. As a recent chemistry graduate from Washington University in St. Louis, your daughter is also taking the scientific route. Nature or nurture?
I think it was her professor at Wash U who convinced her. My husband and I tried to keep out of it. She went to college wanting to be a math major, but she decided she wanted to do research, so she started a second major in chemistry and got hooked. Research is fun. I miss it. When you're doing research and things are working, it is simply exhilarating. That's why you see people working out here all the time, because they just love doing the science.
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