UT-ORNL Governor's Chair Program Takes Off


After struggling to gain traction for several years, the UT-ORNL Governor’s Chair program for joint research appointments is now on a roll.

The program was established in 2006, with strong backing from then Gov. Phil Bredesen, to attract up to 20 top scientists and engineers to the university and the lab for collaborative research. During its first three years, however, the program landed only one recruit, and most of the funding that had been allocated to it sat idle. But recruitment successes beginning in 2009 have now filled 16 of the chairs, including six who came on board within the past year.

Their fields are diverse, as are their national origins and the universities or national labs from which they came. But one thing they almost all have in common is the ability to garner grants and build teams to support their work.

UT’s Executive Vice President/Vice President for Research David Millhorn, who has spearheaded the program from its inception, says “If you had to look at any one program that we have started in the last 10 years that has had the greatest impact on this university, it’s the Governor’s Chairs. … In the aggregate, they have let the university and the lab together go after large programs. We can’t afford to grow incrementally; we need transformational growth, and these people have been a catalyst for that type of growth.”

Millhorn credits UT’s Dean of Engineering since 2008, Wayne Davis, with accelerating the pace of Governor’s Chair recruitment. The five who came on board in 2009 are illustrative of the diversity of both their work and their backgrounds. They include:

• Howard Hall, an expert in nuclear security who came from the Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California and heads an Institute for Nuclear Security that has received a $6 million grant from the National Nuclear Security Administration to address nuclear weapons stockpile stewardship. 

• Yilu Liu, a native of China and electrical engineer who came here from Virginia Tech and heads an energy research center that has received $15 million in funding from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy. The center, known as CURENT, monitors the performance of the nation’s electric grid and looks for ways to make it more efficient and reliable. Liu also oversees some 100 graduate students in her field.

• Thomas Zawodzinski, a chemical and biomolecular engineer who came from Case Western Reserve University and whose work is focused on ways to make fuel cells and other energy storage technologies more durable.

• Alexei Sokolov, a native of Russia who came to this country as a professor of polymer science at the University of Akron. His work in that field at UT and ORNL involves fabricating large molecules with useful characteristics, with an emphasis on fuel cells.

• Frank Loeffler, a biologist and environmental engineer who came from Georgia Tech and whose research centers on discovering ways to clean the environment. 

Governor’s Chair funding that now totals $10 million a year is split just about equally between UT and ORNL. Compensation of the chair holders ranges from $190,000 to $330,000, which puts them in the top echelon of UT faculty members. The balance of the funding goes toward covering some, but by no means all, of the costs of their support teams, lab equipment, and other overhead. The bulk of these costs, though, are covered from the grants they are awarded, which totaled $50 million in a recent years (most of them for multi-year periods).

The prototypical Governor’s Chair holder is still the first one, Jeremy Smith, who was lured away from the University of Heidelberg in Germany in 2006. An English native, Smith is billed as being a computational molecular biophysicist, which sounds about as multi-disciplinary as one can get. But, in fact, chemistry looms very large in his research scheme of things, which makes him even more so.

What attracted him to come here was that the two things he most needed in his work were ORNL’s two most prized assets: the nation’s (if not the world’s) fastest supercomputer, and its Spallation Neutron Source. Yet not even its 27 teraflop Titan (that’s 27 quadrillion calculations per second) is fast enough to fully satisfy his quest for more.

“You can never get enough to do all the calculations you want to,” Smith says. Computation-based drug discovery, mainly funded by the National Institutes of Health, is a big part of his work. “The disease is like a lock, and you’re trying tens of millions of chemicals to see if they are a key that will open it,” he offers as an analogy. So far, several of these “keys” have proved promising enough to be turned over to pharmaceutical laboratories for further testing.

The Center for Molecular Biophysics that Smith heads is supported by some 30 other scientists and engaged in many other spheres of research. Among them:

• Engineering microbes that will extract cellulose more efficiently from plants and trees for use as ethanol and other fuels.

• Engineering an enzyme that can protect people against the deadly effects of sarin and other chemical weapons.

• Identifying the genes in certain bacteria that cause mercury to morph into its most toxic form, methylmercury. For this discovery, and its potential for environmental cleanup, Smith and several collaborators won the prize for the best scientific research at ORNL last year.

The Governor’s Chairs have no doubt contributed to a surge in UT research expenditures, as measured by the National Science Foundation, from $151 million in 2010 to $179 million in 2012. But it’s still got a long way to go just to rival neighboring state universities such as Georgia and Kentucky, whose totals double ours, let alone become one of the top 25 nationally, which is UT’s aspiration.

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