Mentor encourages students to explore creative solutions to efficient energy Meet David Tucker

While being a great mentor to budding scientists isn’t an easy job, for David Tucker, who holds a doctorate in Physical Chemistry, mentoring is an exciting and rewarding experience.

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David Tucker discusses what it’s like to be a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) mentor and what inspired him to go into science. Pictured above: Tucker at a Low Emission Advanced Power (LEAP) workshop. (Photo Credit: LEAP Workshop, National Energy Technology Laboratory)

Being a scientist appealed to Tucker even as a 7-year-old child, but many of the adults in his life were unsupportive of his passion after he had been diagnosed with a learning disability early in his education. Disillusioned, he started in the work force doing manual labor in construction before moving on to becoming an engineer.

Engineering would reignite Tucker’s love of science and inspire him to go back to school to pursue progressively more advance degrees. In 1982 Tucker received an associate’s degree in aviation and air traffic control from Green River Community College. His renewed spark quickly propelled him even further, next receiving both his bachelor’s in synthetic fuels sciences and then his doctorate in physical chemistry from the University of Alabama.

Tucker first heard about the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) around 2001, as many of his colleagues utilized ORISE’s fellowships. Years later he joined on as mentor with the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) science education programs, without having previously been a participant.

NETL offers opportunities to participate in energy-related research. Its mission is to strengthen our nation’s security, to improve our nation’s environment, and to advance energy options that fuel our nation’s economy.

Calling back to his childhood, Tucker remembered having not had any kind of guidance or mentorship, and believes that was what influenced him to take on the role of a mentor. When asked if he’d ever had someone who had taken him under his wing, he said: “No, not really.  Maybe that’s why I’m so motivated to be a mentor.”

As a NETL mentor Tucker hopes to encourage scientists of all backgrounds to explore and creatively ask questions. “Researchers are explorers, and I want to encourage students to explore their world.  Without more explorers, our country has no future,” said Tucker.

When it comes to what mentorship is like in practice, Tucker finds that his favorite part is seeing his students’ excitement. Even “uninformed” questions tend to push his mentees to new discoveries, said Tucker. Another of his joyous moments is watching when those under his guidance determine something no one else had before and then show the world their new findings through technical publications.

When asked to describe his typical day as a mentor, Tucker joked: “Hanging on for dear life while a student takes control of my multi-million-dollar facility.”

As a NETL mentor energy consumptions is always on Tucker’s mind, especially finding more efficient ways to conduct energy. His hope is to keep power prices low, fearing that adopting renewable energy wholesale without a transitional period may one day cause prices to skyrocket. Instead, Tucker and his team of mentees have been studying the benefits of a hybrid model between renewable energy and traditional energy conduction methods, such as gas. Not only does he hope this research can help avoid a potential economic problem, but such research may also help everyday consumers continue having affordable energy bills in the future.

When he’s not studying energy efficiency as a NETL mentor Tucker continues to use his degree in aviation as a private pilot. He also enjoys learning new languages and can fluently speak Swahili and French and dabbles in other languages such as Arabic, Lingala, Kihiya, Spanish and Uyghur.

With a long prolific career and love of life, it’s certain that students researching under Tucker will leave with a wealth of knowledge and a spirit for discovery.

The Professional Internship Program, Postgraduate Research Program, and Faculty Research Program at NETL are administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy. ORISE is managed for DOE by Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU).