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John Petersen: Focusing on the UT-ORNL Synergy


On July 1, 2004, Dr. John Petersen became the University of Tennessee's 23rd president. By virtue of this role, he also chairs the board of directors for UT-Battelle, the partnership that manages ORNL for the Department of Energy. The university and the laboratory share a rich, 60-year history of teamwork and joint initiatives. Petersen recognized and embraced this synergy and last June made it the focus of his very first public address to the region. A chemist whose research was funded by the Department of Energy, Petersen is familiar with the national laboratory system and has an unabashed enthusiasm for UT-ORNL joint research.

Click for full size photo of John Petersen
John Petersen.—
Courtesy University of Tennessee

The growing research portfolio includes the Science Alliance, with divisions in biological, chemical, physical, and mathematical-computer science; and joint institutes and centers in heavy ion research, computational sciences, neutron sciences, energy and environmental research, biological sciences, transportation research, and environmental biotechnology.

Before coming to UT, Petersen served as provost and executive vice president at the University of Connecticut; dean of the College of Science and professor of chemistry at Wayne State University; head of the chemistry department and associate dean for research in the College of Sciences at Clemson University; and assistant professor of chemistry at Kansas State University.

Q. You took office July 1, but your first public address in Tennessee was June 2 at the Tennessee Valley Corridor Summit in Oak Ridge. How did it come about that your Tennessee debut was in Oak Ridge?

Once I accepted the UT president's position in April, the Tennessee Valley Corridor Summit invited me to come and talk in the opening round in Oak Ridge. So I came here for the luncheon with Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and then gave the talk. Typically, I would not have made such a visit before I had taken office to talk about the university because I really wasn't an employee of the institution at that time. But to me, the partnership that UT has with the lab and the value of what that can bring in terms of technology development in this region were worth coming down and talking about. Obviously, a lot of the details about the university were not at my fingertips then, but I got a chance to discuss my philosophy on how universities and national laboratories can relate in what they do. I enjoyed doing that and was happy to accept that invitation.

Q. How have your experience with the Department of Energy and your research background in inorganic chemistry shaped your insight into the UT-ORNL relationship?

I spent 15 years, from 1980 to 1995, in the Department of Energy's Solar Photochemistry Program, working with researchers from Brookhaven, Argonne, Berkeley, Livermore, Los Alamos and Oak Ridge national labs. Meeting and working with these people, I became fairly familiar with national labs and how they work. As a chemist in general, I understand the science, but as a chemist who was funded in this program for so long, I also came to better understand the national labs, the type of research they do, their strengths and weaknesses. The experience also helped me recognize the complementary nature of a university-national laboratory partnership. In the past, universities generally have been richer in personnel and faculty than in facilities and equipment, with the opposite situation being true for national labs. When you can run a match that really works, especially in the areas we are looking to mesh in terms of the UT-ORNL joint institutes, the partnership can be an enormous advantage.

Q. What are your thoughts on the state's $26 million commitment to research in neutron sciences, nano-science, biology, and computer sciences in support of UT-Battelle's management of ORNL?

I think the state's commitment to the management team certainly is unique. Most of the national lab organizations I'd been involved with were usually run by different types of enterprises, but partnerships like Battelle and the University of Tennessee now are becoming the wave of how national labs are managed, and there are a number of advantages to that. UT had a relationship with ORNL far preceding the management contract change, but to be actively involved in the management of the lab really creates an opportunity to bring the university and the lab a lot closer. Being able to sit as partners and strategically plan how we mutually work together on such things as jointly hiring faculty and other issues is going to be very important in terms of projecting ORNL as the top national lab in the country and UT and Battelle as viable partners in that enterprise.

Q. On November 9, 2004, at your first major policy address to the UT Board of Trustees, you announced plans for increased emphasis on UT system and ORNL collaborations in computational sciences, biology, nanomaterials, and neutron sciences. What are your observations on these joint initiatives and the lab's "nano-info-bio" thrust?

These institutes focus on areas in which we feel both the university and the lab can be national and international leaders. Working with ORNL and supplementing ORNL funds with state dollars, we can hire the best people in the world in those areas. These areas are multidisciplinary and can prove to be a broadening area for other disciplines. If you take nanotechnology and combine it with biology and computational sciences, what you find are three fields that are coalescing into the single hottest field in the next few decades. There are similar corridors being built in Silicon Valley, Texas, and other places, but we are going to bring other pieces to bear that will reinforce nanotechnology in East Tennessee.

Q. Given the plans for future joint institutes and other upcoming major projects, one of ORNL's top challenges in the immediate future is recruiting world-class talent to do the research. What role does the university play in helping ORNL meet the incredible demand the lab faces for recruiting scientists over the next 10 to 20 years?

The UT-ORNL relationship is an enormous recruitment advantage for attracting top-flight people who want to work in a university setting but who also want to be able to do their science in first-rate facilities with excellent support. Our partnership enables us to give them both. As institutions get better—which we obviously plan to do at the University of Tennessee—they typically improve incrementally. You hope that you can hire faculty members that are a little better than you are and continue to ramp up, because it is difficult to make a quantum jump in terms of faculty. But I think the key to this relationship is the presence, equipment, support, and all that a national lab brings to a UT faculty position, as well as what being associated with a university means to people who are interested in working at ORNL. This unique partnership affords us the opportunity to make a fairly good quantum leap in terms of the quality of the faculty we hire. So, if we can go out and target some key, high-profile individuals in these areas in which we have decided to work together, the result will raise the reputation of both the lab and the university, and will also help us pursue the other recruiting we need to really build some world-class programs.

Q. What are your long-term goals for the ORNL-UT partnership?

I want us to continue to expand in the four joint research areas we are developing. We could easily see an aggressive five- to ten-year agenda in terms of building faculty in those areas, enhancing the relationship, and looking at these joint appointments. Another goal is to build on UT-Battelle's success in bringing intellectual property into the marketplace, which has resulted in 43 new businesses since 2000. I see the partnership continuing to evolve, spinning out technologies we generate and helping them work for the state in the form of new companies and jobs. As we prove the success of that model, we can look down the road at other ways that we might intersect to help enhance East Tennessee and make the region a real draw for people in those areas on which we choose to focus. Of course, my main goal is to continue to build and strengthen the relative position of this institution, regionally and nationally. My interest is in the University of Tennessee, what it can do for the state and its people, and how good we can make it. Having a partner such as Oak Ridge National Laboratory involved certainly helps facilitate that.


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