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Michael Whedbee: Growing enrichment experts, supporting teams


Michael Whedbee grew up helping on a farm, and he has a small farm now.

But at ORNL, Whedbee is focused on cultivating future leaders.

“Growing the talent base and growing the subject matter experts in this field is one of my primary goals,” said Whedbee, who became section head for Testing Science and Cascade Engineering under Reimagining ORNL. “I’m focusing on helping support the group leaders. The group leaders who have been hired in my section are all new group leaders, so I think one of my most important responsibilities is going to be helping them excel in that role. I’ve been a technical manager for 10-plus years — not that I feel like I’m an expert at it, but I’ve had really good mentors who have shown me different ways to do things, a lot of different ways you can be a good leader. Now it’s on me.”

Whedbee is a legacy ORNL employee; he grew up observing his father’s career at the Lab.

“My dad retired from ORNL; he worked at all three of the Oak Ridge plants,” Whedbee said. “It provided our family with a good lifestyle.”

Yet when he completed his degree at the University of Tennessee, Whedbee didn’t feel a pull to follow his father’s path. Instead, he took a job with John Deere.

“There were things about private industry that excited me: it was fast-paced, there were opportunities to do bigger and better things, everything wasn’t classified,” he said. But when the company moved its East Tennessee operations to Iowa, Whedbee — who enjoys hunting, fishing and spending time outdoors with his wife and two children —visited, “and I knew that wasn’t the place for me.”

So he accepted a job at Y-12 National Security Complex and did early work with the gas centrifuge program, then managed by U.S. Enrichment Corp. Inc. (USEC). When USEC was awarded a contract to deploy a small cascade as part of a research, development, and demonstration program, Whedbee helped build the machines, ultimately serving as manufacturing manager for the facility.

He came to ORNL in 2014 as a contractor supporting the Nuclear Science and Engineering Directorate and, working with other enrichment subject matter experts at ORNL, helped grow the enrichment science and engineering programs at the Lab. He joined ORNL as a permanent employee in 2016 and led a project developing and demonstrating a new centrifuge, smaller than he had worked with before, for ORNL’s small-scale enrichment of stable isotopes.

“ORNL is embracing that mission,” Whedbee said. “There are lots of super-smart individuals on our team, and every day is fast paced. It’s pretty cool to be a part of it.”

Whedbee had lessons in leadership from watching his own father as well as some mentors at John Deere. At Y-12 and ORNL, he learned “not everything everybody does is something I want to do.”

“You have to take the things you think are beneficial,” he said. “I’ve learned everything you put in place doesn’t have to make sense to everybody. You have to provide the leadership to help people gain trust in your decisions, allowing the success to eventually be the evidence for people to get on board. Everybody’s not always going to agree on decisions that have been made, but it’s important that they see the results of those decisions.”

Among the more important lessons he hopes to pass on to group leaders is that “the old idea of someone being a ‘bad fit’ or not wanting to do a good job — 95 percent of the time that’s wrong. Normally, a person not performing well has to do with something other than just not wanting to. They need to be in a team situation that provides a basis for them to be successful. It’s very important we mentor the next leaders to have that mindset.”

The Testing Science and Cascade Engineering Section is responsible for designing and delivering the operations system for the centrifuge, including designing, commissioning, and constructing test beds. Whedbee’s goal is for the section to be nationally known as the “go-to” provider for isotope enrichment production systems.

That goal can be achieved only by growing and strengthening the team, he said.

“These projects that we’re working on are not individual contributor projects,” he said. “There are more than 100 people working on these enrichment science projects. It takes all of the groups and all of the individuals doing well for us to be successful.”