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Brian Davison: Seeking new challenges, forging new connections in bioenergy

Brian Davison: Seeking new challenges, forging new connections in bioenergy

Brian Davison has advice for anyone planning a long career in science, gleaned from more than three decades in the field: Appreciate the ‘eureka’ moments, both big and small.

You don’t find joy every day in any job, but if I find a moment at least once or twice a month, it makes everything else really worthwhile,” Davison said. “Having those moments when you helped articulate and crystallize something, to come up with a brand-new idea that no one thought of yet, it’s just exciting.”

Davison is chief scientist for the Systems Biology and Biotechnology Initiative at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory and an adjunct professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Tennessee. He is also a science coordinator in the BioEnergy Science Center, a DOE-funded research organization performing basic and applied science dedicated to improving yields of biofuels.

“I’ve spent probably two-thirds of my career working in bioenergy, bio-products and biofuels,” Davison said. “It is going to be important for our future energy and chemical supplies and for a renewable, sustainable world.”

He is also the co-lead of the Renewable Energy team of the Big Science Questions program investigating the global nitrogen economy. The team is researching new catalysts for fertilizer production, bioengineering plant-microbe interactions and modeling the nitrogen cycle to better understand how the vital element influences our climate and natural resources.

Davison has been thinking about the idea for a long time and is excited to set up the framework that will carry the research into the future.

“It may take 10 years to really get the initiative moving forward and I may not be still leading it then,” he said. “That is part of the work, though, to reach things in your career that move forward beyond your time.”

Davison may be looking toward his research future, but his roots in science started early. As a child, he was fascinated by the natural world and had aspirations of becoming an astronomer, a naturalist or a paleobiologist.

“There was always an interest for understanding and learning more parts of what was going on,” he said.

Davison said he became an engineer ‘by accident.’  He initially avoided engineering, as his father was an industrial engineer and the field did not seem appealing to him. It wasn’t until college when he learned of the diversity of the engineering world and started training in biochemical engineering and industrial microbiology.

His mother was a journalist and took an active interest in his work, interviewing him about his research and the science behind it. He said his mother’s curiosity and the practice afforded by their dialogue helped develop his skill for communicating science to a general lay audience.

“We are all becoming such experts in specific, narrow things that it’s challenging to be a generalist,” Davison said. “It is important to talk to the lay public because they are the ones who support our science and will have to deal with the impacts of the issues we are trying to warn them about.”

Davison has adapted his communication skills to speak with a variety of audiences and has taught the lessons learned to other scientists at ORNL.

“I feel really lucky having other scientists and engineers at Oak Ridge who trust me with their science to help them refine and articulate their messages,” he said. “I tell people to find a narrative in their work that’s not just a list of facts.”

Davison’s work in bioenergy encompasses multiple scientific domains, bringing together chemists, engineers, simulation modelers, microbiologists and computational biologists. With such a varied group, he said, teamwork and communication are essential.

“One of the things that’s been exciting for me now in my career is trying to be a person who tries to talk across the disciplines and tries to draw out and help people make connections,” he said.

Davison said he will continue to seek out and accept new challenges and follow new, valuable and exciting opportunities as they arise. Whatever direction his career takes next, he will work to drive science forward and develop interpersonal cooperation among researchers and institutions.

“I hope I still keep coming up with good ideas and help people improve what they write, what they publish, write more papers and get more ideas out there,” Davison said. “You create an impact by helping other people, by helping other scientists build their careers, by the students, postdocs and other staff that you mentor. That’s rewarding.”

ORNL is managed by UT-Battelle for the Department of Energy's Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit