The challenges and rewards of leading a diverse group doing innovative energy research
Kathryn Fixen

"It's the chance to be something greater than the sum of the parts," said John Peters, director of the Center for Biological Electron Transfer and Catalysis at Montana State University.

What do a geologist that restores vintage cars, a trail-running microbiologist, and a chemist who is also a competitive golfer have in common? They have all taken on the challenge of becoming an Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC) director. After speaking with six EFRC directors around the country, I found that despite diverse backgrounds and research interests they have a shared vision of the role, the challenges, and the benefits of being a director.

Directing an EFRC is a monumental task. "We are trying to solve a 50-year problem in a 4-year time frame," said Harry Atwater, avid soccer player and director of the Light-Material Interactions in Energy Conversion Center (LMI) at Caltech. Directors have to focus on the center instead of their own research and operate as the ultimate facilitator by assembling a team of collaborative scientists to address the mission of each center. "Fostering synergies across the center to leverage the breadth and depth of expertise of all investigators to tackle large and complex problems is crucial to the success of a center," said Dionisios Vlachos, a keen gardener and director of the Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation (CCEI) at the University of Delaware.

Directors must also maintain the scientific mission of the center and facilitate scientific discovery. "We have to identify areas where the center is capable of making a significant breakthrough and direct resources in that direction," said Victor Klimov, director of the Center for Advanced Solar Photophysics (CASP) at Los Alamos National Laboratory, who enjoys swimming and reading (mostly in the form of audiobooks) in his spare time.

The EFRC directorship role requires not only scientific acumen, but also the ability to guide an interdisciplinary team. "We have to jell a group that hasn't worked together very much or at all, which means the initial challenge is to make sure everyone is integrating and talking, so we can get the best product from the combined expertise," said John Peters, trail-runner and director of the Center for Biological Electron Transfer and Catalysis (BETCy) at Montana State University.

Integration is particularly difficult because groups within a center have more experience working in a competitive funding environment and may struggle to function as part of a team. However, Peter Burns, restorer of vintage cars and director of the Materials Science of Actinides Center (MSA) at the University of Notre Dame, said directors can help overcome this challenge by understanding what everyone brings to the center, to make connections that wouldn't have been made, and encourage and reward such interactions.

Directors must constantly evaluate the direction of scientific research within the center. "Given that the energy terrain is rapidly evolving, being technologically and commercially relevant while advancing scientific frontiers and educating students requires dynamic redefinition of research directions and strategies," said Vlachos. The directors work with their teams to define realistic and ambitious milestones. "We have to make sure we are constantly asking ourselves about the impact and direction of our work," said Cynthia Friend, competitive golfer and director of the Integrated Mesoscale Architectures for Sustainable Catalysis Center (IMASC) at Harvard University.

Despite these challenges, the decision to take on this position was an easy one for the EFRC directors. Like most scientists, the directors wanted to work on a problem that mattered. Atwater remembers growing up during the energy crisis in the mid-1970s and feeling the effects in his own life. "I remember we couldn't hold school in the winter for a few weeks because there wasn't enough fuel to heat the school. I vowed if I had a chance to do anything about it I would." Being a director also provides the opportunity to bring together a large number of people and resources to solve large and complex problems. "It's the chance to be something greater than the sum of the parts," said Peters.

Friend, Peters, Atwater, Klimov, and Vlachos have all held leadership positions in other centers or institutes, and Burns has served as chair of his department. All agree that their experiences in these types of positions helped prepare them to interact with diverse groups of scientists with different research interests and to facilitate collaborations between them. Their experience also had an added benefit: "My interactions with lots of people in the field and my collaborations in the past help to build a great team," said Friend.

The result is a group of leaders who are ready to meet the challenges of directing an EFRC and enjoy the benefits of leading such an effort. "Solving complex problems by putting the pieces of a large puzzle together through the teamwork of world-expert investigators constitutes an important manifestation of the center's success and is by far the most gratifying experience for me," said Vlachos. The centers also provide the opportunity to create an environment to foster mentorship. "One of the things I enjoy most about this role is being involved in creating a new generation of scientists, not just creating new science," said Burns.

What advice do these directors have for future EFRC directors? For most of them, careful selection of team members is the most important aspect of being a director. Klimov said, "In your center, you want people who, in addition to scientific excellence, have demonstrated that they can be team players." For others, it is about using the role to take chances. "Be ambitious. Take on things that have high risk. The EFRC is the best possible support because it encourages taking risks. Take advantage of that," said Atwater.

Finally, directors should remember one thing, said Friend: "Enjoy doing research aimed at critical energy science—ultimately isn't that what it is all about?"

About the author(s):

Kathryn Fixen is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington in Seattle. She is a member of the Center for Biological Electron Transfer and Catalysis  (BETCy) under the advisement of Caroline Harwood. Kathryn’s research is focused on engineering new functionality into photosynthetic bacteria to create bacteria that can convert solar energy into forms of energy that society can use.