This is a continuing profile series on the directors of the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science user facilities. These scientists lead a variety of research institutions that provide researchers with the most advanced tools of modern science including accelerators, colliders, supercomputers, light sources and neutron sources, as well as facilities for studying the nano world, the environment, and the atmosphere.
Contributing Writer Credit: Ashley Huff is a science writer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meet the director:
Karren More, director of the Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences (CNMS)—one of the nation’s premier user facilities for open research on nanomaterials—began her career at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) as a visiting researcher, or user. She was taking part in one of the first user programs sponsored by the Department of Energy to share research capabilities among the scientific community. The aptly named Shared Research Equipment Program (ShaRE) brought More to ORNL as a graduate student from North Carolina State University (NC State) while working on her PhD in Materials Science. The opportunity made state-of-the-art electron microscopy resources available for materials characterization, and the ShaRE program helped set the stage for present-day user facilities like the CNMS. More’s work as a user grew into a subsequent staff position and leadership roles, evolving alongside the development of ORNL user programs including ShaRE, the High Temperature Materials Laboratory (HTML), and the CNMS. “It’s been an incredible experience to see the field of materials science take off under these programs and the technology change leaps and bounds over the years,” said More. “I love being a part of that journey and now leading it and taking it to the next era.”
The director’s background:
When More began civil engineering courses as an undergraduate at NC State, she was the first person in her family to attend college. Her proud parents were immigrants, who encouraged her education but left the details up to her. An introductory course in materials engineering whetted her appetite for a career in materials science. She was drawn in by the allure of microscopy and discovering what materials look like on a fundamental level. More met her first electron microscope as an undergraduate, a completely manual instrument quite unlike today’s computer-controlled instruments. “In the early days, if you wanted to use a microscope, you had to really know how to use a microscope,” she explained. It took hours to align lenses, and images were captured on film plates and developed in a darkroom with crossed fingers. “It was a tedious and time-consuming process, but it gave you an appreciation for how things worked, what you could do with the instrument, and where the barriers stood,” she said. Ultimately, it’s the story of how science evolves. “You learn what you can do, discover things you can’t do, and try to overcome the barriers you meet along the way.”
More’s early research focused on structural ceramics, using microscopy to pursue possibilities for materials to replace metals in high-temperature applications, such as vehicle engines and gas turbines. “Now you hear about carbon-based composites and new metal alloys that offer increased efficiency in high-temperature conditions, but ceramics were one of the first pathways we explored,” she said. More’s work made her a natural fit for the HTML, where she was hired as a staff member in the late 80s soon after the facility opened. For 20 years, she worked jointly as an HTML and ShaRE staff member, eventually becoming the director of ShaRE in 2006, and shepherding the program through its merger with the CNMS in 2015. Though officially integrating with the CNMS in 2015 and becoming the CNMS director in 2019, in reality, More’s history has long been intertwined with the evolving nanoscience center. “It has always been an adventure in state-of-the-art science, but it’s been amazing to see it unfold during my career.”
The CNMS opened in 2006 as the first of five Nanoscale Science Research Centers (NSRCs), sponsored by the DOE Office of Science. Its mission is two-fold, balanced between in-house science and work with users, who come from all over the world to explore materials and their properties on nanometer scale-dimensions as small as atoms.
CNMS staff are collectively focused on developing new capabilities, new understanding, and new science for the benefit of an international nanoscience user community. “Our bottom line is all about our users,” said More. “Our principal goal is to bridge the gap between what people can do at their home institutions and what we can do here to enhance their science.”
The center’s efforts to develop expertise and resources are what push the science forward, which in turn draws users who come to collaborate with experts driving the field. “The CNMS is not aiming to be a place where people go to get ordinary things done. We want to be a center where people go to answer specific scientific questions that they can’t answer anywhere else,” said More.
All five NSRCs offer core capabilities in nanomaterials research but individually strive for uniqueness. The combined goal of these user facilities is to complement the expertise of one another across a broad program of research possibilities. For the CNMS, that unique area is materials synthesis and characterization. This refers to creating of materials with a desired structure and determining the materials’ structure and properties. “The CNMS is foremost a center, with a full suite of capabilities that can aid users from the bottom up, from theory and design to creating and testing new materials, but our world-class microscopy and clean room capabilities are well known to users, who want to come here to learn more about their materials,” said More.
Another benefit of the CNMS is its integration with ORNL’s high-performance computing and neutron scattering capabilities. Users who visit the CNMS also have opportunities to collaborate with researchers at the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility and the Spallation Neutron Source (SNS).
The CNMS actively pursues research on the cutting-edge of what is possible and also responds to the needs and interests of its user community. The goal is to arrive first at new frontiers and pave the way for users to follow. “If we want our users to accomplish extraordinary things, we first have to develop the capabilities that make new experiments possible,” explained More.
The CNMS strives to be on the leading edge of priority research areas. Right now, quantum materials and polymers are two major initiatives attractive to the centers’ users. Quantum materials have become hugely popular for computing and information science applications, but often their most desirable properties “emerge” or happen only at very cold liquid helium temperatures. Part of advancing that research means developing capabilities to observe emergent phenomena at super-cold temperatures. “Our instrumentation is now being developed so that we can cool samples and collect all kinds of data under target conditions,” said More.
Soft matter is another signature strength of ORNL, and the CNMS is leading the way to designer polymers for specific applications. Polymers are desirable for their light weight and flexibility, but studying the large, amorphous molecules with existing methods is challenging. They behave differently than other materials and are easily damaged, so advancing polymer research requires new approaches. “One of our major contributions,” said More, “is deuterating polymers for research at the SNS.” Incorporating deuterium, a form of hydrogen with an added neutron, into materials aids in characterization with neutron scattering, but the process is different for every single polymer.
Find highlights of the experiments performed at the CNMS here.
Best advice for a future director at the CNMS:
Having grown up in ORNL’s user facilities and worked at the CNMS for many years before becoming the director, More’s direction is shaped by her insider’s perspective on its staff and mission. “As a new director of the CNMS, I was told two things: one, this is the best job you’ll ever have at ORNL, and two, be a source of stability for the center,” said More. That advice is worth passing on to future generations, she says. “The most important thing to me is to provide a stable, supportive environment for the scientists to excel,” she said. “I see my role as one that enables and continues to enable the work to go forward.”
In Fiscal Year 2019, the CNMS and the other user facilities welcomed more than 35,000 researchers—from academic, industry, and government laboratories in all 50 states and the District of Columbia—to perform new scientific research. For details on the DOE Office of Science user facilities, go to User Facilities at a Glance.
Please go to Profiles of User Facilities Directors to read more articles on the directors for the Office of Science user facilities.
The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit https://energy.gov/science.