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Wigner Fellowship Program


Filling The Talent Pipeline

The Wigner Fellowship program has been a successful effort to attract and develop young scientific talent.


Eugene Paul Wigner
Eugene Paul Wigner

As head of Ph.D. recruiting at ORNL in 1975, Dan Robbins had a message for Herman Postma, the new ORNL director. Robbins, Chuck Coutant, and other Laboratory scientists had been visiting outstanding research universities to interview the most impressive graduate students in science and engineering. Their challenge was an inability to offer jobs to the most promising students.

Recounts Robbins: "Professors would say, 'This is the best student we've ever seen in metallurgy,' but then we would learn that the Metals and Ceramics Division at ORNL had no money or had not turned in a job description for an open position, so we could not hire this fantastic metallurgist."

Robbins, Coutant, and the other Ph.D. recruiters brainstormed options. What if ORNL could hire the students using a two-year fellowship? The appropriate division could be exposed to the young scientist's energy and imagination. Meanwhile, a fellowship would give the fortunate division time to identify needed funds and create an appropriate research position.

The group urged Robbins to bring the proposal to Postma's attention. Robbins met with the new director and suggested that a two-year fellowship would be a viable way to bring promising young researchers to Oak Ridge before competing institutions snapped them up. Postma offered to fund "a couple of these special postdoc positions out of overhead at a compensation rate comparable to that of an entry-level researcher," Robbins says. "This was a fantastic postdoc rate at the time." He recalls that Postma proposed naming the fellowship in honor of Nobel Laureate Eugene Paul Wigner, the laboratory's former research director and "patron saint." Thus was born the Wigner Fellowship, one of ORNL's most successful recruiting programs.

Coutant was a member of the Wigner Fellowship Selection Committee for 10 years. "It was tough to pick two Wigner fellows each year because we had a stack of applications and they were all top-notch people," he says. "Some of the scientific superstars were attracted by more than just a job. The opportunity to be a "Wigner Fellow" tweaked their imagination. They were drawn to the honor and the prestige in addition to the salary."

Eugene P. Wigner (1902-1995), a Hungarian, was the first director of research and development at Clinton Laboratories (now ORNL), serving in this position from 1946 to 1947. In 1963 Wigner was awarded a Nobel Prize for physics "for his contributions to the theory of the atomic nucleus and the elementary particles, particularly through the discovery and application of fundamental symmetry principles." A nuclear engineer, he designed the water-cooled nuclear reactors at Hanford, Washington, that produced the plutonium used in the second atomic bomb that ended World War II.

"We can trace many of this Laboratory's key strengths today to Eugene Wigner's extraordinary vision," says Lee Riedinger, ORNL's associate laboratory director for university partnerships. "Wigner brought Alvin Weinberg (director of ORNL from 1955 to 1973) to Oak Ridge from Chicago. He also brought Alexander Hollaender to Oak Ridge to establish ORNL's Biology Division. He encouraged Ernest Wollan and Clifford Shull, who won a Nobel Prize for physics in 1994, in their neutron scattering experiments on the Graphite Reactor.

"Wigner established a reactor engineering program that laid the foundation for ORNL's broad expertise in nuclear R&D. He also established a solid-state research group and a division to investigate the effects of radiation on metals. The extraordinary breadth of Wigner's own scientific work—spanning physics, chemistry, mathematics, nuclear engineering, and civil defense—is reflected in the multidisciplinary nature of this national laboratory."

Wigner was also an educator. He started the reactor training school at ORNL and mentored 40 Ph.D. students, including Frederick Seitz and John Bardeen, who later won a Nobel Prize for physics.

Robbins remembers taking some of the fellows around to meet Wigner when he came to the ORNL in the mid-1970s. "They were mutually delighted," he says.

Oddly, the Wigner Fellows program was not always widely publicized within the Laboratory. "In the 1970s and early 1980s there was no reception for the fellows," Coutant recalls. "The membership of the Wigner Fellowship Selection Committee remained a secret." Today, the Laboratory holds an annual reception for Wigner Fellows, and the members of the selection committee—all ORNL corporate fellows—are publicly identified.

Ben Carreras, current committee chair, characterizes the profile of potential Wigner Fellows. "We seek only the very best researchers. We are conscientious about diversity. We try to identify women and minorities who are first rate in their fields. We interview a large number of foreign nationals. Most candidates are referred to us by members of the ORNL research staff, but some candidates apply after seeing the Wigner Fellowship web site."

Current members of the selection committee are Carreras (chair), Jacob Barhen, Virginia Dale, Vinod Sikka, and Ken Tobin.

"The divisions wanting a Wigner fellow must be committed to recruiting very bright people, providing mentoring, teaching proposal writing, providing resources and support, and finding a position for the fellow in two years," Carreras says."

The committee does not interview the candidates. Members do, however, review their applications, papers, patents, thesis drafts, and references. Qualified candidates are required to give a one-hour seminar at ORNL. That's how we judge their scope of knowledge, creativity, critical thinking skills, communication skills, and ability to answer questions on their feet."

Carreras emphasizes that the program's value is evident in the number of fellows who remain at ORNL. "We retain two-thirds of our Wigner Fellows after their fellowship tenure expires. Some leave because they get exceptional offers from universities to be assistant professors, indicating that our program recruits top-notch people."

In an environment of increasing competition for top scientific talent, the Wigner Fellowship program is among the nation's most attractive avenues for young researchers to begin their careers. For ORNL, expanding upon the program's success will be a vital part of the Laboratory's commitment to filling the talent pipeline in the years ahead.


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