Industrial Strength Scholars
ORNL and UT launch graduate program in energy sciences and engineering
A new degree program in energy sciences and engineering, led jointly by ORNL and the University of Tennessee, is preparing graduate students to meet the nation's increasing energy challenges with a transformational approach to interdisciplinary and innovative research.
The program, administered by the ORNL-UT Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education, continues a longstanding relationship between the two research institutions and offers students a chance to experience the best of both worlds.
The opportunity to gain research experience in a national lab attracted students like Kemper Talley, one of 19 students in CIRE's inaugural class. Talley, who recently graduated from Clemson University with a bachelor's in physics, says the history and vision of national labs piqued his interest in CIRE.
"I see the national lab as a center for innovation and a center for fundamental research," said Talley, who is a recipient of a 2011 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. "This program fit the bill for me because I wanted to do fundamental science, and I also enjoy interdisciplinary research."
The mission-oriented nature of national labs is also attractive to industries that hire new PhDs, says Jim Roberto, ORNL's Associate Director for Graduate Education and University Partnerships. As co-leader of a task force to develop CIRE, Roberto helped conduct interviews with senior-level representatives from industries including Siemens, DuPont, Chevron, GE, and Exxon Mobil to understand what companies require from new hires.
"Industries appreciate that national labs are problem-oriented, so the students develop an expectation that there is an outcome "Roberto said. "They value the fact that the students work in multidisciplinary teams, so they learn communication skills and how to work across disciplines."
Breaking the mold
CIRE student Talley knows first-hand about the necessity of communicating across disciplines. Before beginning classes in August, Talley kicked off his research experience by spending his summer working in ORNL's Reactor and Nuclear Systems Division. His research focuses on using and improving theoretical models for nuclear data.
"I'm working with a nuclear physicist and a nuclear engineer who had never met before, even though their offices are 10 minutes away from each other," Talley said. "The ultimate goal of my doctorate is to bridge the gap between theorists and engineers and help them talk to each other."
CIRE's curriculum includes breadth courses such as policy, law or management classes to help students understand the larger context of energy issues. Talley says these broadly scoped courses will create opportunities to engage not only the scientific and industrial community but a more general audience as well.
"Too often, we get in our own corner and just deal with our science," Talley said. "We're not actively taking part in educating politicians and the community. CIRE is trying to break that mold. I think CIRE is going to give us training in the science and engineering, and then say, you need to be able to communicate this to everyone. We don't want to be isolated; that's the idea of the interdisciplinary research."
Even as the CIRE program exposes students to interdisciplinary research, it still requires a "deep dive" in an energy-related focus area. Roberto emphasizes that the program's depth and breadth create a "T" shaped curriculum, which ensures students have a solid grounding in fundamentals while understanding broader contextual issues.
Specialization areas include nuclear energy, bioenergy and biofuels, renewable energy, energy conversion and storage, distributed energy and grid management, and environmental and climate sciences related to energy. The initial group of 38 CIRE faculty members includes 18 ORNL scientists and engineers who work within these specialization areas.
"Typically, when we think about interdisciplinary research, we're thinking about one person working in several different fields—that's not the right view. What industry does and what the lab does, is to pick experts—in nuclear engineering, materials science or chemistry— and bring them together, so they span the disciplines," Roberto said. "No single person has survey knowledge of everything. It's people who are experts in their particular areas working as a group. When you put them together, you get a team that can solve a problem that crosses disciplinary boundaries."
Engaging with industry
As part of the breadth curriculum in the CIRE program, students have the option to pursue an entrepreneurial track. Roberto says this option encourages interested students to develop skills that could lead to forming a technology-based company. Students who want to pursue the entrepreneurial track can partner with UT's College of Business Administration to develop and implement a business plan.
"We want to encourage students to think about entrepreneurship and think about deploying their technologies," Roberto said. "Many graduate students go through school with the understanding that the outcome is a research paper, which is great. They're contributing to the growth of knowledge, which is an important component, but that's not the end. How is that going to get applied? Where are the innovations, and how are they deployed? This allows graduate students the choice to take that additional step."
Roberto notes that the inspiration for the CIRE's business-oriented track stems from the fact that many successful companies in recent history were started by students, including such economic powerhouses as Google, Facebook and Microsoft.
"We want to create an environment where students who have an interest in that dimension can find support in developing themselves and their ideas," Roberto said.
CIRE's relationship with industry may grow further as the program evolves. Program administrators are talking to industry about sponsoring fellowships for students and providing summer research experiences to create a unique workforce development program.—Morgan McCorkle