A Conversation with Pellissippi State President L. Anthony Wise Jr. and ORNL Director Thomas Zacharia on December 4, 2018

Dr. Zacharia, could you tell us a little about yourself and then about some of the work that’s going on at Oak Ridge National Laboratory?

I’ve been leading this laboratory the last 18 months. As you know, we’re celebrating the 75th anniversary. The contributions that this laboratory in East Tennessee has made to humanity are part of history. Most people know about ORNL’s contribution to the Manhattan Project, but what people may not immediately recognize is that nuclear energy came from here, nuclear medicine came from here, isotopes for (fighting) cancer came from here, and these have a mission that we still provide for the nation.

Today, our primary mission is to perform research and development in support of DOE’s mission in energy security and national security. And in fulfilling that mission, we are very proud to support a portfolio of research. The laboratory has four areas where we believe our expectation of ourselves—in fact the nation’s expectation of ourselves—is that we are the best, or among the best: In computing, in materials, in neutron sciences and in nuclear science and engineering. That sort of defines us. But truly, we are in the people business. Ultimately, we are not a profit or loss kind of a business. We are a national laboratory and a service to the nation.

So, you’ve talked a bit about the critical national mission and how that plays out into the research work that is done here by the people who work here. How do you see the impact of the work of your scientists and researchers and employees affecting what goes on in the larger community in East Tennessee?

We deeply, deeply recognize that we are part of the fabric of the community where we live and work. Our friends are from the community, our children go to school here, our children go to college here. And so, as a major employer and a major national laboratory, we believe it’s our responsibility to be an engaged neighbor in everything that the community does.

I think about the similarities between our institutions. Certainly for a community college, that’s probably the mission-critical piece for us—to be engaged in the work that takes place in our community and the learning that takes place on our campuses and making connections that support economic growth and workforce development. Sometimes it seems like it’s a long way from the community college to ORNL. But in a lot of ways, it’s really not, because we hope we can provide foundational learning experiences that may eventually support the work you do as well.

I actually have a personal story to tell. My wife and I got married and came to this country (from India) when I was pursuing graduate education. We promptly had our children, and she was a stay-at-home mom to take care of the kids. She actually discontinued her undergraduate education. And only when the kids started going to high school did she feel that she could take the time off from being a mom to pursue education. She went to Pellissippi to finish out some of the courses before she went to the University of Tennessee. That’s just one example of how Pellissippi contributes to lifelong learning and, at least in our case, career goals and objectives for our family.

When I look at the laboratory, generally we talk about ourselves as a science or research organization. Truly, we hire the very best people from all over the world to be part of the laboratory. In science, they’re usually Ph.D.’s or master’s. But the large part of our workforce—people who really contribute to the mission, our technicians and engineers and business professionals—all benefit from our partnership with the community colleges, the University of Tennessee, etcetera. There are large numbers of employees who got their start at your college. We’re deeply grateful for that, and I think it’s important for us to support that.

Oak Ridge started as a secret city with a mission that was sort of hidden from the world for a time. But if we look at things that happen in Hardin Valley, there’s a Manufacturing Demonstration Facility that’s an arm of the lab and provides great opportunity for learning for our faculty and students who can go in and see what’s going on in terms of advanced manufacturing and materials science and really see practical applications of the research that’s going on out here. I think that’s a great thing to see for the lab.

Absolutely. In fact, the only constant is change itself. What we see in our research—certainly since we are on the leading edge of research—is the rapid rate of change. You mentioned MDF and the Hardin Valley Campus and the strong partnership that we have with you. It is an example of how that transformation is occurring. Digital manufacturing is here. Manufacturing is transforming at the rate of which information technology is changing. I like to remind people that in fact there are very few who can even imagine their life without their smart phone. Most people don’t realize that (Apple founder) Steve Jobs stood up and announced the iPhone just 11 years ago. That’s the rate of change that is occurring. So in my view, just like MDF, there will be tremendous opportunities in the future. I think the opportunity for community colleges generally, but particularly for Pellissippi State, is to prepare your students not just for the jobs that are available for today but, in partnership with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, prepare the students for the rapidly changing job opportunities and the job market of tomorrow.

So one of the exciting things that we have happening at the college is the construction of a new center for math and science. We really hope that this will allow us to do what you just talked about in terms of getting students to think about learning in a disciplined way that you find in science and mathematics, but also prepare to learn lifelong—because that’s what it’s going to take with technology changes. So, we’re grateful for the support you’ve provided for that and for the facility. But the question I would ask on behalf of our students would be—what sort of advice would you give those who are starting out on that STEM path?

I would say—if I were to look at my own life experience, career experience—that education in STEM opens you up for an adventure of a lifetime. In order to really capitalize on the adventure, I think it’s important for your students to take risks, to grab a hold of chances when they’re presented to you. Be a lifelong learner. Work hard. And get lucky. I think that truly if I were to summarize my career, that’s what I would say. I’ve been unafraid to take chances when presented them. I joined the laboratory in the welding group and ended up leading the world’s premier computing facility—and only because when opportunities were presented to me, rather than asking myself, “Should I do it?” I just said, “Why not?”

Well, having a chance to get to know you over the last few years, I appreciate your commitment to having a facility that’s world class in terms of the research that takes place here. Clearly, you’ve got an important national mission to carry out, but the lab also is deeply integrated in the community, and I think that’s a result of the leadership of the institution. So I thank you for that, and I thank you for spending so much time with us.

Thank you. I really appreciate it. I talked about your students in the context of engineers, technicians and support, but I really would hope that your students—especially your science and technology students—would take this as an opportunity to not stop. Go all the way and get a Ph.D. And some day, I’d like to see a student who started out at Pellissippi State Community College be the director of this laboratory.

That’d be fantastic.

Thank you ORNL/UT-Battelle for your generous support of the new center for math and science.