As the University of Tennessee tries to raise its reputation nationwide, one of the key areas it’s focusing on is scientific research — and specifically, growing its relationship with Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Oak Ridge is the largest lab funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, with a $1.4 billion budget and a focus on national security, alternative energy and supercomputing. It is located, conveniently, a half-hour away from UT's main campus in Knoxville. UT is increasingly seeing its link to the lab as a way to lure talented professors to the university who, in turn, attract talented students and big research grants.
“That’s an area that’s been pretty uphill work and a key item we need to do to advance in the rankings," says UT system president Joe DiPietro.
About 170 faculty members work for both the university and the lab in some capacity, a number that’s grown four-fold over the past decade.
Among those is Jeremy Smith, who was hired as a joint tenured professor in 2007. He's a biochemist with an all-star resume: He studied at the University of London and Harvard University, then set up a lab in Paris for 10 years, then moved to the University of Heidelberg — Germany's top biology university — for another decade.
The reason he packed up his lab and moved to UT, he says, was not so much the university as something nearby: the supercomputer at Oak Ridge, one of the fastest in the world.
"Big toys is the answer," he says. "It’s like playing with two million laptops all at once."
Smith has since worked on research projects that have won at least $157 million in total in Department of Energy, National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation grants — a large feather in the cap of the university. But the partnership isn't a one-way street, he says. Oak Ridge profits from the relationship too, in part because it gets access to young talent.
“The PhD students, the kids in their 20s that are very enthusiastic — the national lab benefits very much from the energy that these people bring to the research,” Smith says.
Right now, about 150 PhD students study at both institutions, according to UT. But Thomas Zacharia, deputy director of science and technology at Oak Ridge, says he wants to see that number grow to 400. And they’re on their way — earlier this year, the university and lab won a major grant to create an advanced composite manufacturing institute, which will bring in more students and faculty to both.