For years Brenda Smith found fulfillment working with nuclear batteries, a topic she’s been researching as a chemist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
But she gets a different kind of charge out of her work in a new position in the lab’s Stable Isotope Research, Development, and Production Section.
In Stable Isotopes, Smith is one of several people concurrently researching the thermophysical properties of feedstock gas. Their research will support computational researchers who are designing processes to separate isotopes.
“They want to know how the gas is going to behave during the isotope separation process,” Smith said. “It’s a challenge because it’s not within my background. And I really enjoy working on a team. We are a team of different backgrounds, different opinions, yet we all seem to know how to work together.”
In her previous role, Smith typically worked on individual projects rather than on teams. While she still plans to continue that research, she said, “Here, there’s one mission, and in finding out they have a need for chemists, I feel like my expertise adds a specific value to this team.”
Working in the Isotope Science and Engineering Directorate — recently formed as part of ORNL sharpening its focus in driving the production and application of isotopes — creates opportunities to think creatively and try new things, Smith said.
“We’re still creating our vision for the new directorate,” she said. “We’re doing a lot of strategic planning. We’re trying to find where chemistry fits in to helping find solutions to processes for the recovery of stable isotopes.”
Of course, the risk is that not every idea will result in acceptance.
“We throw things to the wall and see if they stick,” Smith said. “If it sticks, great. If not, we go write something else.”
Smith is no stranger to adaptation. As a junior in college successfully majoring in advertising and minoring in graphic design while managing a $200,000 advertising budget for publicizing on-campus events, she one day realized, “This isn’t me.”
The Ohio native spent the summer before what would have been her senior year figuring out which career path would bring her happiness. She eliminated math, physics and biology before settling on chemistry.
“I spent my ‘senior year’ as a freshman chemistry major,” Smith said. “The next year, I was in an organic chemistry lab, and I said, ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I want to work in a lab.’”
As an undergrad, Smith worked closely with graduate students, then completed graduate school herself with encouragement from her advisers. During graduate school, she thrice visited Institut Laue–Langevin, the internationally financed scientific facility in Grenoble, France, to study neutrons. She used the facilities at Argonne National Laboratory and visited other laboratories.
“I really loved the national laboratory environment, and I really wanted to work in a national lab in the U.S.,” she said.
When, after finishing her graduate degree, she interviewed at ORNL, she was recruited for a different ORNL position. Now she’s in her 10th year at the lab.
“I saw opportunities for working outside the box,” Smith said. “I believe in high risk and high payoff — and it was doing what I wanted to do. It was a win-win for me.”
Since then, Smith said, she’s learned to balance research with the necessary tasks that accompany it: pitching science to sponsors, writing proposals, reporting results.
“I’ve learned a lot about how to navigate my career and still do the science I love doing,” she said.
In between, she volunteers with a girls’ STEM outreach program, raises two young children (with help from her husband) and binges Netflix to unwind — though she admits she typically still has a laptop in front of her while watching.
She’s also continued the nuclear battery research she was doing before coming to ISED, collaborating with both the U.S. Army and Widetronix, a small business, to work on 3D volumetric configurations to significantly improve battery performance. That research, she said, may someday benefit low-powered remote sensors, among other applications.
With the move to the Stable Isotope Process Development Group, she said, “I had an opportunity to reimagine myself, to reinvent myself. I have an opportunity to be integrated into the process.
“By bringing together chemists, plasma physicists and nuclear engineers, we can tackle grander challenges and make greater science impacts.”
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 energy.gov/science.