The committee received 19 nominations from six directorates

By: Laurie Varma and Phil Lotshaw

Each year, members of the Oak Ridge Postdoctoral Association Executive Committee and the Office of Research Excellence select a mentor of the year. Bronson Messer, Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility’s (OLCF’s) director of science, was chosen as the 2020 mentor of the year.

Postdocs at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) depend on close engagement with their mentors as they explore their research interests, grow their network, and take on leadership roles.

Vassilios Mewes, a second-year postdoc at the OLCF, cited Bronson’s support as integral to navigating the complicated changes he has faced in computing research. “Managing such dramatic changes, which include completely different physics, numerical methods, and computing on heterogeneous hardware, would not have been possible without his excellent guidance, mentoring, and patience,” Vassilios says.

Antigoni Georgiadou, also a second-year postdoc at the OLCF, praised Bronson for taking time to hear and understand her aspirations and plans.

Vassilios has also valued Bronson’s support for continuing previous work. Under Bronson’s mentorship, Vassilios says, he has had the “freedom to keep working as the lead developer of the numerical relativity code I had developed previously.”

This year, the committee received 19 nominations from six directorates. The top mentors, in addition to Bronson, were Sandra Davern, Benjamin Lawrie, Som Shrestha, and Gabriel Veith. Lynn Kszos, Office of Research Excellence program and engagement specialist, says, “All five of our finalists are exemplary, so it was hard to choose just one as mentor of the year.”

OLCF Director of Science Bronson Messer, Photo: Carlos Jones/ORNL

Aspects of the nominees that stood out during the review process were their strength in aligning postdocs’ research experience with their career goals, advocating for postdocs, helping postdocs develop collaborations and explore new areas of study, and fostering leadership opportunities for postdocs.

For Claire Marvinney, a third-year postdoc in the Materials Science and Technology Division, her mentor Ben Lawrie’s willingness to advocate for her has ensured she could continue doing impactful research in this unusual year.

“During my months working remotely, Ben advocated for my return to campus, highlighting the synergy of my research with his lab’s important Basic Energy Sciences proposal,” Claire says. “This perseverance worked, and since my return, I have been collecting the first publishable data in our newly fully operational millikelvin optical microscopy system.”

Mentors also make a difference in their postdocs’ experience at ORNL by opening up new opportunities and helping them develop collaborations.

Miguel Toro Gonzalez, a former postdoc recently hired as permanent staff in the Radioisotope Science and Technology Division, said his mentor Sandra Davern “motivated me to learn different topics and to gain expertise in different fields by including me in diverse research projects with participation of researchers across the lab.”

Katie Burdette-Trofimov’s mentor Gabriel Veith sent her to user facilities outside ORNL, including the National Institute of Standard and Technology’s Center for Neutron Research and SLAC’s Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource, which broadened her research experience and added x-ray tomography and other neutron scattering techniques to her research repertoire. Katie is a third-year postdoc in the Chemical Sciences Division.

Of his mentor Som Shrestha, Tianli Feng, a former postdoc recently hired as permanent staff in the Buildings and Transportation Science Division, says, “He introduced to me the widely open research freedom, opportunities and collaborations at ORNL, which have been the most important factors that keep me here.”

Office of Research and Project Administration Vice President Phil Lotshaw stresses that there are many great postdoc mentors across the lab.

“We were very pleased to learn about all the excellent mentorship taking place at ORNL and would like to thank all mentors for their contributions in guiding postdocs and helping them develop professionally. Although we were not able to acknowledge each example of excellent mentorship individually, we are sure the mentored postdocs will benefit immensely from these experiences.”