UT's planned Oak Ridge Institute is designed to 'answer some really hard questions'
Plans are progressing on the Oak Ridge Institute at the University of Tennessee, which is expected to bring an additional 500 graduate students to the Knoxville area over the next 10 years.
UT and Oak Ridge National Laboratory have formed a steering committee, made up of equal representation from both groups. The group has been meeting since September and outlining the mission and goals of the institute.
"I think one of the overarching goals of the institute is to be a promoter of talent development in areas of national need," said Stacey Patterson, a co-chair of the steering committee and vice president for research, outreach and economic development at UT.
While the program will focus on growing graduate programs, it also exists to make it easier for students who want to partner and work with ORNL. The university and the laboratory already partner in several areas, including governor's chairs who conduct research for both organizations.
"That's really what we're so excited about on this campus, increasing the size of our graduate programs," said David Manderscheid, UT-Knoxville's provost. "But not just the size, but the quality of our graduate students getting some (more) really world-class graduate students."
The institute will "be very interdisciplinary, problems-based work," Patterson said.
"You can think of big, grand challenge kinds of problems," Patterson said. "So getting faculty and researchers together to work together to move the needle and to answer some really hard questions, and in doing so, to develop a new kind of talent."
Patterson and Manderscheid said the institute will not be limited to particular areas of study, but the focus will be on areas related to data science and technology, advanced materials science and outcomes-based applications.
The student experience at the institute will be "very individualized," Patterson said, and students will be able to develop personal plans related to what they are studying. The institute is about "making it easy for people to partner together," she said.
The mission of the institute — "to strategically align the expertise and infrastructure of the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Laboratory to usher in world-class interdisciplinary research and graduate education" — is already underway. There is already a group of graduate students who are involved in the institute, which won't start "with the flip of a switch," Manderscheid said.
Interim UT System President Randy Boyd said progress on the institute "is in the right direction."
“I think 10 years from now this will be one of the biggest impacts that we could make," Boyd said at the board of trustees meeting Friday.
The institute also will create new faculty positions. It will build on existing programs, but new positions will need to be created.
The institute will cost $100 million over the next 10 years, an average of $10 million each year. It will be paid for through federal and state funds, as well as some funding from UT-Knoxville and other partners, Patterson said at the last board meeting.
An open forum will be held in December to share preliminary recommendations for the Oak Ridge Institute. At the end of the year, the steering committee will present its official recommendations to university and ORNL administrators.