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August 23, 2023 | Shannon Smith

Meet the man bridging the gap between UT and ORNL 

David Sholl is temporarily filling the UT-Oak Ridge Innovation Institute Executive Director role vacated by Joan Bienvenue, who recently left the institute for a job at the University of Texas. 

The University of Tennessee-Oak Ridge Innovation Institute (UT-ORII) has a new interim leader who’s no stranger to either of the worlds the institute is working to bridge. 

David Sholl is temporarily filling the Executive Director role vacated by Joan Bienvenue, who recently left the institute for a job at the University of Texas. 

UT-ORII was launched in 2021 to align the expertise and infrastructure of Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and the statewide University of Tennessee (UT) System in support of world-leading research and talent development. 

Sholl, who currently leads the decarbonization initiative at ORNL, also spent many years as an engineering professor at Georgia Tech.  

“I’ve been in the university environment and now the national lab environment, so when the chance came to be involved with UT-ORII, which is really meant to knit together the university and the lab, that was a really nice opportunity, so I was very glad to take it,” said Sholl. 

He said he’s enjoying a role that lets him straddle both worlds. 

“I feel like one of the things I can do is be a translator between the two sides to help people understand both institutions have their advantages,” he said. 

Even in an interim role, Sholl has no plans to sit and watch from the sidelines. 

“I am not here to keep the seat warm,” he said. “From day one there’s a real need for us to execute some things and so we’re moving ahead quickly with those.” 

One of those “things” is helping UT-ORII grow to meet its goals. 

“We want to really increase the number of Ph.D. students that are enrolled at UT, but then do their thesis work at ORNL,” said Sholl. Right now, about 150 Ph.D. students are involved with UT-ORII. “We’d like to get to 500 PhD students. Then at the same time, we have ‘convergent research initiatives,’ which are places where we’re hiring research staff at the university and research staff at the lab to lead these research areas.” 

UT-ORII is currently hiring researchers at ORNL and UT for two convergent research initiatives: clean manufacturing and advanced materials, and energy storage and transportation. Sholl said the institute is in the process of identifying three more areas of research, and notes these areas call on more than just engineers. 

“There’ll be some diversity of topics, both in terms of disciplines, and I would hope that we have some where there are very identifiable local economic development outcomes, as well as some outcomes where the world knows more about whatever is being researched,” said Sholl. 

He said building these research areas is what he’s most excited about in this interim role. 

“By having these kinds of convergent teams where we have 20 or 30 or 40 people that are working in an area, I think we can really just think about the scope of the problems in a different way,” said Sholl. “That’s the exciting thing for me is that we can really tackle these big problems.” 

UT-ORII has three existing Ph.D. programs within The Bredesen Center at UT Knoxville – Energy Science and Engineering, Data Science and Engineering, and Genome Science and Technology.  Sholl said he’s meeting with leaders there to talk about “supercharging” UT-ORII’s Ph.D. student population. 

“The key pitch that we give the students is it is the chance to work with ORNL,” he said. “If you’re a scientific researcher, when you come and you look at the things we can do at ORNL, I mean, it’s an amazing place. So we really can offer students a qualitatively different experience than they would have at most other research universities.” 

UT-ORII’s Bredesen Center students’ research focuses on the convergent research initiatives, as well as areas such as molecular genetics and systems biology, computational science, national security, and other joint areas of research.  

The search for a full-time UT-ORII Executive Director is happening now as a joint effort between the university and the lab. Until that person is determined, Sholl is happy to be at the helm.

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