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Highly cited research inspires insight and collaboration

  • Petro Maksymovych analyzes a sample using a customized, variable-temperature scanning probe microscope at ORNL's Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences. Image credit: Jason Richards, ORNL

  • Materials scientist Michael McGuire specializes in exploring the structure and properties of complex materials, with an emphasis on magnetism. Image credit: Jason Richards, ORNL

  • Colleen Iversen's (left) ecosystem research has taken her to Alaska as part of the NGEE Arctic project to study Arctic ecosystems in a changing climate. Also shown, from left, are ORNL's Joanne Childs, Rich Norby (kneeling) and Victoria Sloan. Image credit: ORNL

  • Petro Maksymovych analyzes a sample using a customized, variable-temperature scanning probe microscope at ORNL's Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences. Image credit: Jason Richards, ORNL

  • Materials scientist Michael McGuire specializes in exploring the structure and properties of complex materials, with an emphasis on magnetism. Image credit: Jason Richards, ORNL

  • Colleen Iversen's (left) ecosystem research has taken her to Alaska as part of the NGEE Arctic project to study Arctic ecosystems in a changing climate. Also shown, from left, are ORNL's Joanne Childs, Rich Norby (kneeling) and Victoria Sloan. Image credit: ORNL

Every year since 2002, the Web of Science Group has announced its list of Highly Cited Researchers, ostensibly the most influential scientists and engineers in their respective fields. Their influence is gauged by how often their publications are cited by other researchers worldwide.

This year's list includes nine scientists from ORNL.

One of these researchers, materials scientist Michael McGuire, notes that a research paper becoming highly cited has a lot to do with timing—being at the forefront of research, or a little ahead of it.

"The key to success in this field," McGuire said, "is being able to see the one result among many that really has potential for further investigation and then presenting it to the research community in a way that gets them excited about it.”

McGuire and his colleagues look for materials with interesting qualities, although sometimes they're interesting for unexpected reasons.

“Sometimes we're looking for superconductors and we find a new magnetic material, or we're looking for a magnet and we find a new superconductor,” he said. “As a result, a lot of our research doesn't produce papers in Nature or Science, but it does produce novel materials that become the foundation that other scientists build on to advance their research, both here and outside of ORNL."

Ecosystem ecologist Colleen Iversen, another of the laboratory’s highly cited scientists, also maintains that many benefits of the science produced at ORNL are accrued by sharing those insights.

"I don't think that where something gets published makes it good science or not," Iversen said. "Good science is good science—and if you do good science, people will find it.

“I spend a lot of time thinking about how to communicate my work to the broader community of scientists and to the public. Our work is funded by taxpayer dollars, so we need to make that information available as widely as we can," she added.

To that end, Iversen has helped to develop the Fine Root Ecology Database, or FRED, maintained by ORNL's Climate Change Science Institute, as a way to share scientific data across institutions.

"FRED contains information from 100,000 locations across the world that root and rhizosphere ecologists are freely sharing,” she said, “and the data is being used to build mathematical models and to inform the next generation of studies in the field.

“This kind of data-sharing makes me feel that I'm making a difference. It makes me feel like I'm contributing to a conversation that's bigger than me."

When it comes to contributing to a larger conversation, ORNL microscopist Petro Maksymovych, another of the lab’s highly cited scientists, can point to the continuing interest in papers on ferroelectric materials that he and his collaborators published 10 or more years ago.

For decades, scientists suspected that rearranging the atomic structure of these materials under applied fields should give rise to new properties such as metal–insulator transition. However, the community could not confirm that behavior until he and his colleagues were able to apply advanced microscopy techniques to the problem.

"This work started out as a collaboration with University of California physicist and former ORNL Deputy for Science and Technology Ramamoorthy Ramesh,” he said. “Then we went on to work with a number of people at ORNL’s Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences, where we were able to observe the process directly and subsequently control it.” 

More recently, attention to this research has peaked again because of the discovery of ferroelectricity in hafnium dioxide. Because this material is also compatible with processes used to manufacture many electronic components, it could open the door to the development of faster, smaller computer memory chips.

Like his highly cited colleagues, McGuire and Iversen, Maksymovich stresses the importance of sharing knowledge with the broader scientific community, as well as being a part of an institution that is known for producing high-quality scientific research.

"One of the reasons other scientists cite research from ORNL is that the laboratory has a very strong reputation for producing transferable knowledge—knowledge that stands the test of time," he said.