David Hopkinson, Ph.D., remembers what it was like to apply to graduate school. He can recall the soulful feeling of achievement when he received his offer letter for Virginia Tech just as well as the anxiety and doubts. He knew mechanical engineering would be a challenging career path—was he ready?
Now an accomplished scientist at the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) in Morgantown, WV, and a mentor for science research programs administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE), Hopkinson thinks fondly of the journey that led him to become the Technical Portfolio Lead (TPL) for the Carbon Capture Field Work Proposal (FWP). After all, his own past experience as a budding scientist is what inspired him to help other newcomers gain the skillsets and confidence they need to lay the groundwork for a fulfilling and rewarding career.
“My first mentorship was with an undergraduate student from West Virginia University,” recalled Hopkinson, who has mentored 13 participants in five years’ time. “He ended up working with me for four years before graduating and then leaving to pursue a master's degree in mechanical engineering. It was great to have him around for so long because I was able to see him grow as an engineer and as a person. Also, seeing his excitement as he applied to grad schools and eventually moved on to start that new phase of life brought back many fond memories of my own grad school experience."
Researchers of all academic levels, from college freshmen to faculty members, can apply to ORISE-administered science education programs at NETL. The programs assign participants to real-world research projects and pair them with staff scientists like Hopkinson to maximize their educational experience. While the mentees learn new research and networking skills from their mentors and peers, the mentors benefit from the added collaboration on their research projects.
“We use the Postgraduate Research Program to bring new expertise and fresh ideas to research projects at NETL,” said Hopkinson. “As the TPL for the Carbon Capture FWP, I’ve had the opportunity to recruit several young scientists to further the work that we do in Carbon Capture materials development.”
Hopkinson has mentored both undergraduate students and post-doctoral students. His main duty is to act as a supervisor and technical guide, staying up-to-date on his mentees’ progress. This can be challenging, he noted, but in a good way.
“I’m fortunate to have a team that makes discoveries faster than I can keep up with,” said Hopkinson, who can speak to mentorship as a mutually beneficial relationship that keeps him astute and, to his own satisfaction, forever a student.
“I usually learn more from my post-docs than they do from me,” said Hopkinson. “For example, I routinely end up with an entirely different perspective on how materials function after talking with a post-doc who specializes in molecular simulations, whose experiences in material design and structure-property relationships are very unique compared with those of an experimentalist.”
While mentorship demands patience and practice, Hopkinson sees it as a benefit not only to himself and his mentees, but also to the scientific community and world as a whole.
“My career goal is to develop technologies that will make a positive impact on the world,” he said. “I’ve had the pleasure of being able to work with many bright young post-doctoral scientists who have helped me to make advances in the Carbon Capture program that I hope will someday be used in the field to mitigate the effects of global warming.”