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ORNL military fellows graduate, recount national lab experience

From left, Craig Moss, Major Micah McCracken, Tim Delk and Lt. Col. Jessica Critcher pose with awards given at a small ceremony recognizing ORNL’s 2022 military fellows. Credit: Genevieve Martin/ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy

In front of family and friends, Lt. Col. Jessica Critcher and Maj. Micah McCracken gave their final report on their eye-opening year as ORNL military fellows. Military fellows, currently all from the United States Air Force, learn about how to leverage ORNL’s research to solve challenges the Department of Defense faces today and in the future.

“Our military fellows serve their nation, and they serve the national laboratory,” said Moe Khaleel, associate laboratory director for the National Security Sciences directorate. “Fellows are an asset to the lab in educating our scientists on what is needed in the field. We need to direct the right research to the right problems for national security.”  

Tim Delk, ORNL’s military fellows program executor, said fellows’ time directly applies to ORNL’s national security mission. “During the year, we connect them with as many ORNL research areas as possible. Through these conversations, we collectively develop paths forward to apply research to their mission space.”

Critcher and McCracken both heard about ORNL’s expertise long before applying for this program and were excited about getting to know more about the East Tennessee-based national lab. After arriving, they were explicitly told to be curious and experience as much of the lab as possible. They attended formal meetings and presentations, and both remarked on how random meetings in elevators or grabbing a coffee with a researcher led to deep conversations. Overall, they each were able to venture toward areas of interest to DOD and discuss how current research can be used to keep warfighters safe in all types of climates.

Critcher recounted how research around resilient artificial intelligence is of interest to DOD. It’s a growing field, she said, and is being incorporated into our lives already. There are vulnerabilities to including technology more and more into what we do every day. Research is looking into preventing manipulation of data being used to train AI, ensuring the technology does what it is intended to do.

She also discussed how quantum technology is being incorporated into communications systems to protect against natural disasters and hackers. Research being done today could be used in the future to secure the grid and critical infrastructure to prevent loss of communications in an emergency.

“If I could stay six months longer, I’d learn something new every day,” said Critcher. “I won’t leave here as an expert, but I know where the experts live.”

McCracken turned his attention to materials being developed for the unique environment of defense. Research into carbon materials, batteries and machines that make parts for military vehicles all center around looking for stronger, cheaper and more secure ways to get the right components to military groups around the world.

Battery research is producing higher density, more efficient, and lighter weight batteries useful for unmanned aerial vehicles. Future developments could extend the lifetime of a battery, reducing the need to carry spares or conduct maintenance on vehicles during deployment.

Of their time in Tennessee, Critcher and McCracken made the most out of what the region has to offer. Critcher was close enough to family that she was able to see her nephew, Justin, play college football at every home game. McCracken and his wife welcomed a son to their family.

ORNL has hosted 65 military fellows since the program’s inception in 2002. Over the past 20 years, this program has bridged research with application in ways that save lives, make hard things easier and protect the nation from adversaries trying to disrupt our way of life.

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