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Dave Cullen: Succeeding with world-class collaborators

Dave Cullen. Image credit: Carlos Jones, ORNL

In 2019, nine ORNL early career researchers were recognized with prestigious awards from the White House and the Department of Energy—the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, or PECASE, and the DOE Early Career Research Program Award. We sat down with these promising young scientists to talk about their backgrounds and current research.

For having just won a PECASE award, Dave Cullen is a pretty humble guy.

“The award is a big deal, and it’s a big honor,” he said, “but I think it’s a reflection of more than just the individuals; it’s a reflection of their institutions and the people surrounding them.”

Cullen, an electron microscopist at ORNL’s Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences, suggests that his award for research into the factors that control the durability and performance of fuel cell materials owes a great deal to the unique combination of world-class staff, collaborators and facilities at ORNL.

“We have state-of-the-art equipment and the expertise that goes with that,” he said. “That’s critical to ensuring that your research reaches the level at which it gets noticed for this type of award. 

“Also, in my case, collaborations were very important—both inside and outside the lab—through the CNMS and through DOE’s Fuel Cell Technology Office and Energy Materials Consortium. Thanks to these relationships, I’m working with top-notch scientists who are doing the best science.”

Cullen emphasized the importance of user facilities like CNMS in bringing together innovative researchers from around the world.

“I don’t think you’d see these types of opportunities at a university,” he said. “Having a nanoscience center means we can bring in external users. That really increases the breadth of our collaborations. We have engagement with fuel-cell researchers who are working in Japan, Asia, Israel and so forth. The CNMS has really enabled international collaboration.”

Cullen hopes that the prestige of his PECASE award will help to jump-start new collaborations that will extend the advances he and his colleagues have made in the field of fuel cell research to other energy conversion technologies. 

“We are already seeing the techniques we have developed with electron microscopy for fuel cell catalysts extended naturally to other energy conversion systems, including CO2 conversion,” he said. “With the prestige of the award and the attention that comes with it, we now have opportunities to develop other collaborations in new areas that relate well to the technique that we have developed.”