School of Physics participates in GT-ORNL research collaborations

School of Physics participates in GT-ORNL research collaborations

Faculty Upbeat After Road Trip to Oak Ridge National Lab


Early-career Georgia Tech faculty members who visited Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) last month returned energized. They found opportunities to partner with scientists who complement their research interest and skills. And they saw first-hand the impressive facilities they could use to advance their own research programs at Georgia Tech.

The visit is part of the initiative of Julia Kubanek to accelerate the growth of GT-ORNL research collaborations. Kubanek is Georgia Tech’s representative to the ORNL liaison committee that oversees the national lab’s partnerships with a core group of universities, which includes Georgia Tech. Kubanek is also the associate dean for research in the College of Sciences and a professor in the School of Biology and the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

Kubanek also hopes to draw attention to energy-related research opportunities for Georgia Tech graduate students. “Energy is a major focus of 21st-century science, and our reliance on antiquated modes of generating energy is harming the planet,” she says. “ORNL is committed to energy-related research in many domains of science, including biology, materials, and physics.”

David Hu, an associate professor in the School of Biology and the School of Mechanical Engineering, was on the Georgia Tech road trip to ORNL on May 17-18, 2016. Previously unfamiliar with ORNL, Hu says, “I was happy to see the formidable resources they have toward collaboration. They even have a student dorm.”

Hu’s goal was to find collaborators, and yes, he found two. One studies plant roots, and the other runs a state-of-the-art fabrication facility.

“The plant root is a model system for network formation,” Hu explains.  Hu and Chloé Arson, an assistant professor in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, have a joint grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded Center for Bio-mediated and Bio-inspired Geotechnics to study how natural networks form.

In addition, Hu says he has an NSF-funded project to study the sensory abilities of moth antennae. ORNL’s state-of-the-art fabrication capabilities will help in building an at-scale model of a moth antenna.

On the other hand, Martin Mourigal, an assistant professor in the School of Physics, is no stranger to ORNL, having done research with the national lab’s neutron sources.  He uses neutron scattering to study dynamic and static properties of matter in the nanoscale. He joined the trip to learn more about ORNL’s diverse research portfolio beyond neutron scattering.

“My interest was to learn about their materials preparation and characterization facilities and get a better feeling on how supercomputing can be used to address fundamental physics questions,” Mourigal says. “I had a fun time learning about nanoscale materials, supercomputing, and advanced manufacturing.”

Hu, Mourigal, and 14 other early-career Georgia Tech Faculty members on the road trip in May toured ORNL’s major facilities: the Spallation Neutron Source, the Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences, the Titan  supercomputer, and the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility. This last one, Mourigal says, “was pretty cool. ORNL is trying to push the boundaries of additive manufacturing, and that may have a transformative impact for various industries.” Additive manufacturing is also known as 3D printing.

Georgia Tech is one of ORNL’s eight core university partners. The others are Duke University, Florida State University, North Carolina State University, Vanderbilt University, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, University of Tennessee, and University of Virginia.

“We look to our core universities to work with us on major research projects,” says Ian S. Anderson, ORNL’s director of graduate education and university partnerships. These collaborations are evident in ORNL publications, he adds, 70% of which have university coauthors.

Some Georgia Tech research programs align well with those of ORNL, Anderson notes. Partnering enables ORNL to work with excellent faculty and students to achieve its research goals, he adds. “We would like to see more Georgia Tech graduate students carry out research at ORNL.”  

“It is clear to me now that many opportunities for partnership exist for Georgia Tech and ORNL,” Mourigal says, “particularly to access scientific equipment or technical expertise that is not present, or is complementary to what exists, in Georgia Tech.”

Hu says he will follow up with his newfound ORNL partners throughout the summer.

Mourigal, meanwhile, is co-organizer of the ORNL Challenge, a summer program for undergraduate students. He will spend two weeks of the 2016 summer semester in ORNL, he says, “supervising students, engaging with ORNL scientists, and looking forward to developing more collaborations.”