New agreement with national lab opens doors for UO scientists

Researcher Karl Mueller working on lab equipment at the PNNL

A new agreement between the University of Oregon and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington, will allow scientists to obtain joint appointments that bridge the two research institutions.

The agreement signed this week paves the way toward greater collaboration between UO and the national lab, which have partnered in the past on numerous projects but never under such a broad agreement.

“This is the culmination of a couple of decades of deep collaboration between researchers at the UO and PNNL scientists,” said Jim Hutchison, UO’s Lokey-Harrington Chair in chemistry and associate vice president for research. “This enhanced partnership will allow us to build on those successes, and both institutions will be enriched by this continued and expanded exchange of expertise and knowledge.”

UO researchers will benefit from their exposure to the high-impact team research environment at the national lab, and UO expertise in materials synthesis, electrocatalysis, green chemistry and other areas will help complement lab’s strengths.

 “This mutually beneficial agreement will strengthen ties between our two institutions,” said David Conover, UO’s vice president for research and innovation. “It will open up new avenues of external research funding and provide exciting opportunities for our graduate students to work at one of the premier research centers in the country.”

“PNNL scientists with joint appointments will serve as mentors to UO graduate students, and both groups will gain access to new tools and technologies,” said Doug Ray director of strategic partnerships at the national lab. “The collaboration will help both institutions tackle challenges of global importance with an initial focus on materials that impact energy production, storage, environment and national security.”

The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is known for discoveries related to renewable energy technologies, computational materials science, environmental science and national security. A Department of Energy national laboratory, the lab employs a staff of more than 4,400 and has an annual budget of nearly $1 billion.

Nearly two decades ago, researchers at the UO teamed up with scientists at the national lab on a project that brought the UO’s proficiency in synthetic chemistry together with the lab’s computational expertise. The collaboration resulted in the discovery of a potent binding agent and led to a grant from the National Science Foundation. That represents the kind of collaborative project that researchers at both institutions would like to see more of, Hutchison said.

The initial commitment of the joint appointment agreement is focused on chemistry, biochemistry and materials science, but it allows for any department interested in engaging with the national lab to participate. In the near future, Hutchison said, there is mutual interest in building stronger connections in the life sciences as well as in high-energy physics.

The first appointments will be connected to the UO’s Energy and Sustainable Materials Cluster of Excellence, which seeks to build upon the established record of accomplishment in materials science at UO by hiring three new faculty members and creating a collaborative team of researchers.

Students in the UO’s Graduate Internship Program will also benefit from the new agreement. A blend of real-world training and graduate-level instruction, the program fast-tracks students into scientific careers in high-tech growth sectors such as semiconductor technology, polymer materials and optical materials and devices. Under the new agreement, there will be opportunities to expand the Graduate Internship Program into new emerging technology sectors, including some of the national lab’s areas of research expertise.

“These appointments from PNNL will strengthen our team, particularly in the energy and sustainable materials area, and complement the tenure-line hires we are currently targeting,” said Shannon Boettcher, an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry and director of the energy and sustainable materials initiative.

“This will allow us to increase the impact of our research program and, ultimately, the ability to positively affect society at large.”