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Ben Thomas: Spotlighting careers in nuclear nonproliferation

From left, Ben Thomas poses with Richard Mu (Tennessee State University), Moody Altamimi (ORNL), Lin Li (Tennessee State University), and Ja’ Wanda Grant (ORNL) during a visit to Oak Ridge National Laboratory to discuss education programs. Credit: Carlos Jones/ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy

Ben Thomas recalled the moment he, as a co-op student at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, fell in love with computer programming. “It was like magic.”

Having grown up in a small town in Alabama, Thomas accepted an opportunity at a national laboratory to “see what was out there.” Almost five decades later, he strives to bring the same feeling to students through education and experience in fields that could benefit nuclear nonproliferation.

Thomas has started a new role as an education liaison. His goal is not only to bring universities and colleges from across the U.S. into the nonproliferation network, but also to significantly increase the number of minority-serving institutions, or MSIs, participating in the National Nuclear Security Administration Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation University Consortia.

“One of my two tasks is to create pathways of awareness of both STEM and non-STEM skillsets needed in the nonproliferation field,” Thomas said. “The quest to keep nuclear materials secure for peaceful uses is not all about science, technology, engineering and math. There are other aspects of nuclear nonproliferation, such as political science or international law, that are required for this work to be successful.”

Thomas thinks talented students at MSIs are often unaware that there is a wide range of opportunities for fulfilling careers across the nuclear enterprise in nonproliferation, security, research, policy and operations. As an example, he notes that most historically Black colleges and universities are in the South — as is ORNL. Thomas sees opportunities to connect the lab’s researchers and scientists across the nuclear enterprise with universities in close proximity to ORNL.

ORNL’s participation in the Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation University Consortia extends to four specific consortia: the Consortium for Enabling Technologies and Innovation; the Consortium for Monitoring, Technology, and Verification; the Nuclear Science and Security Consortium; and a new consortium for research in nuclear forensics. Each consortium is headed by a university that partners with national laboratories to complement classroom learning with hands-on experience through virtual and in-person visits. Networking with researchers and touring lab campuses give students their own perspectives on how they can best fit into the nuclear industry.

ORNL appreciates having students at varying levels of higher education working directly with researchers on real challenges. “Research has shown that diverse teams enhance innovation, which is a core value of ORNL,” said Educational and Pathway Programs Manager Ja’Wanda Grant. “Thanks to the dedication of staff members like Ben Thomas, we are able to diversify participation and broaden access to world-class internship opportunities. This early career talent pool represents the future of innovation and the future of ORNL.”

After 46 years at ORNL, Thomas is still enjoying his contribution to the research needed to keep the nation safe. He visits institutions of higher learning to talk directly with students and encourage administrators to invest in nuclear education programs.

“I want to help somebody the way someone helped me,” Thomas said. “There's something amazing about university campuses. I don't know what it is, but when you step in that environment, it is transforming.”

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