Charles Paradis, Ph.D., didn’t follow the typical path to a career in science.

Growing up, Paradis was more interested in sports than academics. Once out of high school, he worked as a commercial truck driver for two years, before he was sidelined by a physical issue.

“It was then I decided that I needed to pursue a career which required a higher education,” Paradis recalled.

So he signed up for classes at a community college in San Pablo, California, located in the San Francisco Bay Area. There he discovered he had a knack for STEM subjects, including mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology. He soon gained enough credits to transfer to the University of California, Berkeley, where he majored in geology.

ORNL Doctoral Participant Profile: Charles Paradis

Mentor Terry Hazen, Ph.D., left, advises Charles Paradis, Ph.D., as Paradis analyzes soil cores collected at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). As a participant in the Higher Education Research Experiences program at ORNL, Paradis focused on understanding the biogeochemical controls on the mobility of contaminants in groundwater.

“By the time I graduated from Berkeley, I was confident that I could get a good-paying STEM-related job, excel at it and enjoy doing it,” Paradis said.

His interest in geology ultimately led him to a doctoral program at the University of Tennessee (UT), Knoxville, where his adviser, Terry Hazen, Ph.D., a Governor’s Chair professor who works jointly at UT and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), told him about the Higher Education Research Experiences (HERE) program at ORNL.

Paradis was looking to conduct research in the field of contaminant hydrogeology, a branch of geology that relates to the quality of groundwater. He applied to the HERE program and, once accepted, joined the Ecosystems and Networks Integrated with Genes and Molecular Assemblies (ENIGMA) team within ORNL’s Biosciences Division.

ENIGMA is a multi-institutional consortium funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and managed by DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. ENIGMA researchers seek to advance the understanding of microbial biology and the impact of microbial communities on ecosystems.

Under the guidance of Hazen and in collaboration with Larry McKay, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at UT, Paradis focused on reducing the mobility of contaminants, such as uranium, in groundwater, so that they don’t come into contact with sensitive receptors, such as drinking wells or bodies of water full of aquatic life.

“My research will improve the methods to immobilize groundwater contaminants and improve the understanding of the microbial mechanisms that facilitate contaminant immobilization,” he said.

Paradis said the biggest takeaway from his time in the HERE program was incorporating microbial ecology into his research on contaminant hydrogeology.

“The ability of natural microbial communities to perform activities which either degrade or immobilize contaminants in groundwater can be astounding,” he said.

Paradis was the lead author of three published papers connected to his research at ORNL, most recently in the scientific journal Groundwater, and he co-authored two more, in the Journal of Contaminant Hydrology and the Hydrogeology Journal. He points to these publications as evidence of how the opportunities provided through the HERE program ultimately benefit the scientific community.

Paradis said he would recommend the HERE program to others, because it provides the opportunity to conduct important research across many different fields of science.

“I am a much better scientist now than I was before I started the HERE program,” he said. “My skill set is now much broader and much improved. I have also made huge steps in expanding my network of colleagues within the national lab system and throughout the university system of the U.S.”

After his HERE appointment, Paradis accepted a postdoctoral position at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he conducts research in contaminant hydrogeology with the Radionuclide Geochemistry Team.

“There is no doubt that my research in the HERE program was a significant and positive factor in terms of getting this position,” he said.

The HERE program at ORNL is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy.