The critical difference
Wigner fellows say a unique balance of freedom and opportunity brought them to Oak Ridge
Ryan Bennink, a current Wigner fellow, is a proficient musician.
The ORNL Review asked two important questions of some current and former Wigner Fellows. The questions were: "What do you think of the Wigner Fellowship program?" and "What is your impression of ORNL as a place to do research?" The answers are revealing.
Ryan Bennink, a current Wigner fellow, is helping ORNL build its quantum optics program. "I think the Wigner Fellowship program is a great deal for me," he says. "I'm happy to be here. My fellowship gives me the freedom to research the ideas that I'm really interested in. At the same time, the program gives me time to establish myself.
"I like ORNL as a place to do research. The environment is one that provides some really exciting work. ORNL also provides a good balance between the freedom to do academic research and opportunities to work on projects that are applied, relevant, and useful to society. I feel fortunate to be in this position where I am getting paid to think about problems that are interesting to me."
"An added bonus is a nice, new building with beautiful, clean laboratories. The people around here are really friendly. Oak Ridge is a nice place to be."
Maria Varela, a native of Madrid, Spain, studies materials using ORNL's electron microscope that currently holds a world record for atom-scale resolution. She is glad to have accepted the Wigner Fellowship that she won, much to her surprise. "Oak Ridge is the place to be," she says. "Scientifically, because of our new facilities, many of our new hires are heavyweights. Professionally, it's really exciting to be here right now."
Varela is glad she chose Oak Ridge for another reason--the low cost of living. "In Berkeley, I could only afford to rent a crappy studio apartment where I cooked by the toilet bowl. In East Tennessee, for the same amount of money, I can rent an apartment by the lake and have a boat."
Eliot Specht is a former Wigner Fellow who still conducts research at ORNL. He has made key contributions to developing a high-temperature superconducting tape with a strong potential of being commercialized. Specht attributes much of his success at ORNL to the Wigner Fellowship Program. "The Wigner Fellowship was critical to my decision to come to ORNL," he says. "I had received a competing offer for a staff position. I would not have come to ORNL if I had been offered only a postdoctoral position."
Nevertheless, Specht is glad that ORNL became his long-term employer. "Oak Ridge maintains some of the best synchrotron radiation facilities in the world," he says. "The Laboratory gives its staff the freedom to develop and exploit these facilities. Quite simply, this is a great place to work."
Ingrid Busch, a former Wigner fellow at the National Transportation Research Center, agrees. "The facilities here are wonderful and constantly improving," she says. "I am impressed by the caliber of my co-workers and their dedication to doing important work and doing it well." Busch has developed routing and scheduling algorithms for use by the U.S. Air Force's Air Mobility Command, which schedules airlifts to deploy troops and equipment in response to contingencies and disasters."
I certainly believe the Wigner Fellowship program is a fantastic way of attracting great people to ORNL," says Mark Lumsden, a former Wigner fellow with ORNL's Center for Neutron Scattering. "The prestige, salary enhancements, and high probability of future employment provided by the program certainly make ORNL more appealing than many other institutions to those considering their options after graduate school."
Steve Zinkle, a former Wigner fellow who was recently named an ORNL corporate fellow, says: "I liked the Wigner Fellowship because I was given flexibility and free reign to pursue my scientific interests. In return, I felt like I had additional expectations to perform. I was motivated to work above and beyond my natural abilities. If you recruit the best people, they will try to exceed expectations. They will grow to be the future leaders of the Laboratory."
"I think the Wigner Fellowship does a lot of good for the Laboratory," says Baha Balantekin, a former Wigner fellow who now holds the Wigner Chair in the Physics Department at the University of Wisconsin. "I personally know several truly excellent Wigner fellows who would not have considered ORNL if the Wigner Fellowship program did not exist. Without question, the Wigner Fellowship helps ORNL attract the best people."