Working at National Labs: Oak Ridge

Photos: ORNL/DoE

Nestled in the hills of rural east Tennessee is one of the largest multidisciplinary research centers in the United States. Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) got its start as a nuclear research facility during World War II, but since then, it has expanded into a wide array of fields, including life and energy sciences, advanced materials, and nuclear physics. The lab's scientific diversity attracts a steady stream of scientists from around the world. A few of those who come--about 4000--currently make careers here as full-time staff scientists.


“Oak Ridge is tremendous for young scientists because you have a number of different disciplines here and large-scale resources that can’t be found anywhere else,” says Jeff Blackmon, a research scientist in the physics division who came to ORNL on a postdoc fellowship 10 years ago from the University of North Carolina. Blackmon studies astrophysics, but his work on exotic isotopes formed in supernova explosions brings him into contact with people in nuclear physics and the computational sciences. “This open campus offers a lot of opportunities to cross traditional scientific boundaries and do interdisciplinary work.”

Jeff Blackmon

Oak Ridge feels very much like a university environment--and that, Blackmon says, sets it apart from other Department of Energy laboratories. “The national lab infrastructure came from the Manhattan project and the cold war days," he says. "Many other labs [such as] Livermore and Los Alamos are still primarily ... focused in large part on the safety of the nation's nuclear weapons." The fact that the lab functions more like a university and has more free interaction among scientists is not the historical norm. In some ways, Blackmon says, the atmosphere at ORNL is even more open than at most universities, "where you may not have as much interaction with so many people in such a broad number of fields.”

Located 20 miles west of Knoxville, Tennessee, ORNL is home to a full-time, permanent staff of 4100, slightly more than half of them active bench scientists. With more than $300 million being invested recently in the construction of new facilities, the number of people hired to scientific support staff positions--technicians and engineers--has increased in the last few years. The lab's 19 user facilities sit on a 58-square-mile campus and serve six main scientific areas: energy, neutron science, high-performance supercomputing, complex biological systems, material science, and national security.

The newest of these facilities is the $1.4 billion Spallation Neutron Source (SNS). Completed in May 2006, this accelerator-based neutron-scattering facility provides the world’s most intense pulsed neutron beam. SNS is designed primarily for materials science research, but Blackmon is an active user, collaborating on projects on the molecular properties of materials and their applications--“everything from making better computer chips to biological applications.” Ever the scientific opportunist, Blackmon is meanwhile “finding out what new research opportunities may exist to use this new facility.”

On the scene. Staff members crowd the SNS control room on 28 April 2006, when the SNS generated its first neutrons.

Every national lab has its own unique capabilities, each having a world-leading scientific niche. ORNL, Blackmon says, has three: the world’s most powerful neutron sources, one of the world’s fastest supercomputers, and one of the nation’s leading centers in genomics. “There is no doubt that having these kinds of unique tools available and having the strong multidisciplinary environment that allows for interaction gives us a lot of advantage to better understand science,” Blackmon says.

The ability to work well in such a rich environment--says Virginia Dale, a senior scientist who has been at ORNL for almost 25 years and a group leader in the environmental sciences division--is essential for ORNL scientists. “Some scientists are very good at working behind closed doors and producing fabulous work, but science in a national laboratory is usually interdisciplinary, and almost always involves a team ... because when it comes to large-scale projects, you need to have a lot of people involved in solving the problems.”

Virginia Dale


Large facilities such as the SNS almost always have enough independent support to stay online, but using the facility to do science is a separate issue. “They told me to just establish myself in the field by writing papers, and that it would be 3 years before I would start writing proposals,” says Laetitia Delmau, who was hired in 2000 in the chemical sciences division, straight out of her ORNL-based postdoc. ”But 3 months after I arrived, I was asked to write one." In the 6 years she has been in the lab, Delmau says, the burden of writing proposals has spread further down the organization chart. “Where it was normal before for only a division leader to write proposals for the whole division, it’s now group leaders and team members.”

Laetitia Delmau

Sometimes ORNL can offer internal support to new projects in the form of start-up funds. And Delmau, who serves monthly on a committee that reviews new ideas, says that “one can always write an addendum to an ongoing project to get funds from a current sponsor if the idea is related to a project that is already in place.” But if money for a new initiative can't be found inside ORNL, ORNL scientists must look outward, usually to the same government agencies university scientists look to.

One key to keeping projects funded at Oak Ridge, Dale says, is teamwork. Most of her projects tend to be group efforts, with one lab researcher with special expertise taking the lead in developing proposals. “A project may look at the ecology of human diseases, so a social scientist would take the leadership role, while in another project that requires modeling, a modeling expert would take the lead in developing those ideas,” she says.

Getting in

With the SNS facility having been commissioned less than a year ago and 13 other new facilities in the final stages of construction, it’s not surprising that ORNL is hiring. Bob Martin, an SNS human resources administrator who sits on that facility’s hiring committee, expects about 30 advanced-degreed positions to open in the next 5 years. “We have 24 instruments installed, and we’re going through the design and installation of another 21. Each of those instruments will probably have a lead scientist and a couple of postdocs, along with another advanced degree researcher,” Martin says.

ORNL regularly hires established researchers, but the entry point for many of the current staff members was the laboratory’s postdoc programs. “The program is designed to attract top postdocs, and that has been a great avenue where we try to keep as staff members,” says Dale. According to the Web site for the Wigner Fellowship --ORNL's oldest and most important postdoc program--two-thirds of those awarded this fellowship continue to pursue research at the lab.

Dale, who serves on the Wigner committee, says the committee looks for people who can apply their critical thinking ability across different fields. “We tend to look for people who are highly interdisciplinary and don’t necessarily have traditional pasts, as long as they have [a] record of excellence." Right now, Oak Ridge has nine Wigner fellows, and a tenth will be starting soon. Four or five new Wigner fellows are appointed annually as the previous fellows move on.

For many ORNL staffers, the area's scenic location and low cost of living are major pluses. But it's the chance to work alongside a wide variety of world-class researchers and equipment that makes people want to stay. “If you want to be creative, if you want to work on the really hard problems in a collaborative environment, then this is the place to go,” says Dale.

Andrew Fazekas is a correspondent at Next Wave and may be reached at

Comments, suggestions? Please send your feedback to our editor.

DOI: 10.1126/science.caredit.a0700016

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers