by Lucinda Hodge
Accelerator physics. Gas hydrates. Spallation neutron science.
A collaboration established between UT and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Joint Faculty program opens unique avenues of research for both institutions and provides numerous benefits to each.
“The Joint Faculty program allows one to build a large and focused university-based research group while also having access to the broad technical expertise and world-leading facilities of a top national laboratory,” said Jimmy Mays, a UT-ORNL Distinguished Scientist and professor of chemistry. “This synergistic relationship boosts productivity and the impact of the science.”
Currently, there are three types of joint faculty at the university. The first type consists of Distinguished Scientist and Governor’s Chair level appointments. The appointments are made with the expectation that these individuals will help lead research efforts at both institutions in their fields of specialization.
According to Hanno Weitering, professor and Head of UT’s Department of Astronomy and Physics, the second type normally has a 50 percent appointment at UT. Faculty on this appointment teach, submit proposals through the department, obtain research funding, and supervise students.
Approximately 102 scientists at ORNL hold a third type of appointment at UT called the zero percent appointment. These typically come about when an ORNL scientist has a close collaborative research connection to one or more faculty members in a department.
According to Lee Riedinger, a professor of physics and Director of UT’s Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education, the zero percent program is part of a long history of collaboration between UT and ORNL.
In the ‘60s, a Ford Foundation grant set up a pool of money that enabled Oak Ridge faculty to come to the university for a one-day appointment. When the award ran out, university departments took over the funding for several years.
In 1999, as a result of state funding awarded by Tennessee Governor Don Sundquist, UT began hiring more collaborating scientists, which it labeled joint faculty.
“It was basically a loan employee agreement,” Riedinger says. “They decided the shared employee mechanism was the right way to go. That opened the floodgates.”
Riedinger says the US Department of Energy and ORNL allow joint faculty to be set up at zero percent time at the university, which gives them the opportunity to have full rights to be real mentors to UT students and the students the benefit of easier access to ORNL’s world-class instrumentation. While zero percenters don’t enjoy all the benefits full-time university faculty do, this appointment provides Oak Ridge faculty access to funding with agencies such as the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health.
“Zero percent appointments represent a more substantial partnership, in my view, than adjunct appointments because they require more work to set up, including the involvement of the division director,” Riedinger says.
Claudia Rawn, now the director of UT Center for Materials Processing, represents an interesting example of how a joint appointment can “evolve” over time.
Rawn joined the Materials Science and Technology Division at ORNL in 1997 with the Oak Ridge Associated Universities Postdoctoral Fellowship program. When she was hired into the Joint Faculty program in January 2002, she held a 60 percent ORNL and 40 percent UT appointment and began to bring her research program in gas hydrates to the university.
In January 2012, her appointment changed to 80 percent UT and 20 percent ORNL, and she became the associate director of the Center for Materials Processing. Six months later, she became the director, and in January 2013, her joint faculty appointment was changed to 90 percent UT and 10 percent ORNL.
Rawn says collaboration is an important mutual benefit of the Joint Faculty program. Knowing people at both institutions, she can recommend qualified students for positions with her colleagues at ORNL. If she’s writing a grant proposal, she knows which ORNL colleagues can provide the best information for the project.
Rawn’s specialty at ORNL is using X-ray and neutron scattering techniques to characterize a variety of materials. At UT, her students use a range of techniques to synthesize materials. Then they characterize the material at one of the DOE User Facilities at ORNL, including the Spallation Neutron Source, High Flux Isotope Reactor, and Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences. To gain access the students must write competitive proposals for “beam time.” If approved they take general safety and instrument-specific training before using the instruments. Once there, they load the samples, collect data for some number of days, and then analyze the data and results. They are able to spend time with the various beam line scientists who are experts in their field and often present their research at technical meetings and write co-authored manuscripts.
“Being able to open that door to my students has been very beneficial,’ Rawn says.
Weitering says zero percenters are making a positive impact, for instance, by bringing research in accelerator physics to the department and also through their work with students.
Jeremy Smith, the university’s first Governor’s Chair and also director of the UT-ORNL Center for Molecular Biophysics at ORNL, says all his research depends on the Joint Faculty program. Smith also indicated all of his bioenergy projects involve others at the university. In return, UT has access to the worldclass facilities at ORNL.
Smith, whose wide range of research topics include bioenergy, supercomputing and drug design, says the UT-ORNL partnership is vital to the university’s quest to become a Top 25 public research university.
“Collaboration with ORNL is absolutely essential if UT wants to make the Top 25,” Smith says. “ORNL is number one in the world in what it does.”
Joint faculty collaboration also helps with student recruitment and retainment.
“A lot of students have heard of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, so just knowing that the two have strong collaborations and there are chances for students to go out there and use some of the equipment and network with the ORNL researchers definitely helps with recruitment,” Rawn says.
“Joint faculty also work with undergraduate students at ORNL during the summer. Some of those students may decide to stay at UT for graduate school,” Weitering says.
Rawn says the Joint Faculty program is run smoothly.
“I think it works great. UT is a much older institution than ORNL. It just seems that academics in general have a pretty good support system, and I appreciate that.”
Smith agrees. “It’s fun doing all these scientific projects, working with talented people and bright researchers at ORNL. It’s the future of UT.”