Clinton, Tenn.-native Richard (Rick) Lowden never dreamed he’d have the opportunity to work in a top national research facility. But after spending years in menial pay jobs, he decided to travel a more financially secure path: one that led him down the halls of Pellissippi State Community College and eventually, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).
“I pursued an Associates of Science degree with a focus in mechanical engineering technology largely because I found I was quite good at it,” said Lowden, who received his two-year degree from Pellissippi in 2014 and is on track to complete his bachelor’s degree in engineering in spring 2016 from Austin Peay State University. “Engineering technology is challenging, which I enjoy. There is also unlimited opportunity to learn new things.”
Lowden has learned a wealth of engineering knowledge since first stepping foot inside ORNL in 2012. A participant in the Laboratory Technology Program, administered for the U.S. Department of Energy through the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE), Lowden has had the opportunity to apply his academic skills in a real-world setting. The Lab Tech program offers both full- and part-time opportunities for current undergraduate or recent bachelor’s or associate’s degree graduates looking to develop their technical skills at ORNL.
Specifically, Lowden helps test the mechanical properties of a wide variety of materials for use in numerous technological and engineering applications. By measuring how a material responds under varying levels of stress and in different environmental conditions, like temperature and humidity, Lowden can help ensure the material is used safely and effectively.
“For example, the support beams used for the 3-D-printed home here at ORNL were brought to my mentor Don Erdman and I,” said Lowden. “It was our job to verify the beams’ ability to support the weight load required for safety. The beams met every requirement, and so the production home was created.”
Not only are Lowden and colleagues tasked with testing materials using known methods like microscopy or mechanical failure testing, but sometimes they have to collaborate to develop new test methods altogether.
“Some materials that come to us have never been tested, so they require testing methods that are new as well. Other materials are very costly, so samples must be very small. I have worked with others to create testing methods for these small samples,” explained Lowden, who enjoys studying all the new materials that come his way. The diversity in materials is a reflection of the lab as a whole, which attracts researchers, partners and companies from across the globe looking to utilize the lab’s unique resources.
“The internationally recognized excellence we achieve at ORNL brings in many clients and researchers whom I may never have had the opportunity to work with anywhere else,” said Lowden. “Additionally, without this program I would have had a much harder time completing my education. In that sense, the program has fulfilled many life goals that otherwise would have been impossible.”
Overall, Lowden believes the program has opened the door to a lifetime of career opportunities—possibly one that will lead him right back through the ORNL gates after he completes his planned master’s degree in engineering.
“In ten years I could see myself as a lab manager and a master’s level technician here at ORNL. I very much enjoy being in the lab and knowing my research could lead to breakthroughs in metals and ceramics technologies.”