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September 06, 2021 | Tom Ballard

Joan Bienvenue using skills she has honed as a marathoner to lead new UT-Oak Ridge Innovation Institute

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Joan Bienvenue tells us she has run in 38 marathons, and we suspect that the skills she has honed as a marathoner – optimism, self-motivation, emotional regulation, grit and discipline – will come in handy as she leads the new University of Tennessee-Oak Ridge Innovation Institute (UT-ORII).

“I love to build things,” the always smiling and animated native of New Hampshire says, adding, “We’re flying the plane while we’re still building it.” UT-ORII was established last year to align the expertise and infrastructure of Oak Ridge National Laboratory and UT in support of world-leading research and talent development.

As described on its website, UT-ORII “will create a robust talent pipeline in areas of growing national need and demand. As a result, Tennessee will become the ‘go-to’ destination for top-level talent development and discovery. The UT-Oak Ridge Innovation Institute will address top-tier industry and workforce needs. The institute will develop scientists and engineers, who will be locally relevant and globally competitive. Students will be prepared by teaching innovation and interdisciplinary problem-solving skills.”

The Institute is off to a good start financially, having received a five-year, $20 million commitment from the U.S. Department of Energy and most recently securing an $8 million appropriation in the 2021-22 State of Tennessee budget.

Bienvenue started her roles as Executive Director of UT-ORII and a UT Knoxville Vice Provost on March 8, relocating from Charlottesville where she had been serving as Senior Executive Director of the Applied Research Institute (ARI) at the University of Virginia (UVA).

Joan Bienvenue

As one might imagine, there are similarities between Bienvenue’s experience launching ARI eight years ago and the role that she will be playing at UT-ORII. The UVA Institute was focused on growing basic and applied research, education, and training with an emphasis on global and national security. At UT-ORII, she will develop a strategy for establishing leading-edge interdisciplinary graduate research in emerging fields, build world-leading programs that leverage the capabilities of the entire UT System and ORNL, and lead recruitment of faculty, staff, and students.

“I’m honored to have served as the inaugural executive director of UVA’s Applied Research Institute and to have led a team that’s playing such an important role in solving some of our national security challenges,” Bienvenue said. “Now, I’ve been given the opportunity to be on the ground floor of launching the UT-Oak Ridge Innovation Institute. It’s a huge endeavor but it’s one UT and ORNL have been preparing for since the Manhattan Project.”

The partnership between UT and Oak Ridge was born out of a need to win a world war. Over the past 75 years, the partnership has strengthened and grown; and now the two stand as one, prepared to take on the nation’s challenge of remaining globally competitive.

“Our country sorely needs a pipeline of trained scientists and engineers who are prepared to take on the scientific and technological challenges facing our world,” Bienvenue says. “We have a real potential to do that here with the UT-Oak Ridge Innovation Institute. That’s not just rhetoric or a sales pitch, it’s the facts.”

The combined experience and expertise of the nation’s largest science and energy laboratory and a major research university simply can’t be found anywhere else, she said.  UT-ORII has ORNL Director Thomas Zacharia and UT President Randy Boyd’s full commitment, with both making the Innovation Institute a priority for success.

The “Oak Ridge Corridor” – a term coined by former Senator Lamar Alexander when he was governor 40 years ago to describe the concentration of brainpower in the Knoxville-Oak Ridge area – is also primed and ready to take on new challenges.

“There’s a good vibe here,” Bienvenue says of the region, citing the new “Techstars Industries of the Future Accelerator” as just one of the vibe factors. “People are hungry to do something different.”

A top priority for Bienvenue is answering the question, “Where can we have the most impact from K (kindergarten) to post-doctoral STEM-related education? It’s not just graduate and undergraduate education, but the whole continuum. I’m trying to understand our role and am working with ORISE (Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education) that is already heavily invested in that space.”

Several current projects illustrate its focus. UT-ORII is reviewing a second round of seed grant proposals to support cutting-edge multidisciplinary research projects by teams of UT and ORNL researchers. The Institute launched its first 10-week “Student Mentoring and Research Training” (SMaRT) program this summer with 18 college students from across the country. It has become the home for the UTK Genome, Energy and Data doctoral programs with more than 150 students. All of this on top of an already successful joint faculty program with 125 UT and ORNL faculty involved.

In the end, Bienvenue emphasizes the impact that accelerating research and developing the workforce of the future can have on the region. “The buckets sometimes get blurred, but it’s all about economic development in the end,” she says.

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