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Feature Story | Argonne National Laboratory

Driving innovation through diversity

Q&A with three rising stars at Argonne.

In the 1960’s, NASA’s inclusion of the contributions of three brilliant African American women advanced the research and achievements of the United States’ space program. Their extraordinary work did much to keep the nation competitive in the Space Race of the 20th century and it provides a compelling example of how diversity in science fuels innovation and discovery.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory recognizes the power of diversity in driving innovation. The laboratory supports scientific advancement from a diverse group of researchers early in their careers, including those at the postdoctoral stage that spans the time between the completion of their Ph.D. and appointment to a scientist position. Argonne’s postdocs carry out research in computer science, physics, materials science, chemistry, environmental science and many other disciplines.

On February 24 at 7 PM CST, Argonne is hosting an OutLoud virtual event focused on Driving Innovation Through Diversity. The public event will highlight three of the lab’s African American postdocs: Kevin Brown, Thabiso Kunene and Devon Powers. In this Q&A, the three early career scientists discuss their career paths and areas of research.

Brown is the first recipient of the Walter Massey Fellowship and a researcher in Argonne’s Mathematics and Computer Science division. Kunene is part of Argonne’s Materials Science division and Powers is a postdoc in Argonne’s Applied Materials division.

How are you hoping that your work advances science and benefits society?

Brown: I am helping design future generations of supercomputers for use by the world’s scientists. Supercomputers are used today to accelerate discovery in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) by doing billions of calculations per second. But to solve the problems of tomorrow, we need to make supercomputers even faster. I want to ensure that scientists have the computing tools they need to make breakthroughs in predicting the Earth’s climate, discovering new drugs, designing electric vehicles and more.

Kunene: I want to help the world fight climate change by achieving a net-carbon-neutral economy. At Argonne, I am hoping to improve the preparation of materials that will transform carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into valuable fuels. Today’s technology relies on the bulk properties of catalytic materials, which are materials that facilitate a chemical reaction. The dream is to use just a few atoms as catalysts and still improve the amount of fuel generated per amount of carbon dioxide.

Powers: I’m excited to help demonstrate the feasibility of new ideas for advanced batteries that would help us transition toward clean energy. In my work, I am helping show how unusual materials can be put together in a lab to obtain properties that are interesting and useful for different battery applications. If I’m able to show that those ideas can be scaled up to a level that is useful for industry, that would be even better. I’m also interested in developing materials that can use electrochemistry to address other energy and environmental challenges.

What positives and pitfalls have you encountered on your career path so far?

Brown: Throughout my career, I have been surrounded by people who are passionate about venturing into the unknown, effectively creating new knowledge for humanity. This inspires me to keep questioning the status quo and thinking about the proverbial what’s next?” in my field. Studying supercomputing has allowed me to travel the globe and interact with some of today’s most influential thought leaders in STEM. Unfortunately, getting to this position requires training, resources and professional networks that are not easily accessed by most whose socioeconomic condition don’t afford them these benefits. On the bright side, the ongoing efforts by Argonne and other organizations to create accessible STEM pathways are making significant impacts to address this issue.

Kunene: I have realized my limited expertise in and background knowledge of the instrumental techniques relevant to my current research. However, one of the advantages of being at Argonne is that other postdocs have been more than willing to help and point me towards the relevant resources. This has helped me catch up in a very short span of time.  

Powers: The most positive things I recall involve interactions with other amazing researchers, especially those with an immense depth of understanding and who are very down-to-earth. It never fails to impress me.  My pitfalls tend to involve the intersection between my expectations and the reality of an experiment. There was a situation when I realized that our approach to an experiment wasn’t working the way we expected. It was (obviously) a bit disheartening to watch my planned experiments go up in smoke, but we learned enough about the system to find a solution that did work out well for us.

What advice do you have for students and postdocs in your field?

Brown: I will share the advice I give to myself: there is likely a great opportunity waiting to be found in every interaction and experience, even in the negative ones.

Kunene: I would say work hard and be nice to people. Personally, I have learned that people are always ready and willing to help you, but you have to humble your ego and give people a reason to go out of their way to help or give you advice whenever you need it.

Powers:  Sometimes the arc of your work is long, and you’ll have to wait and work for years before doing the project that excites you. Keep at it. Don’t forget to go home every now and then (regardless of what home” might mean). Research can be taxing, and it’s good to rest. But even more, it’s good to remember what and who inspired you to start in the first place.

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s 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, visit https://​ener​gy​.gov/​s​c​ience.