Shull Fellowship Interview

Shull Fellows now launched on interesting and fulfilling careers

“The beauty of the Shull Fellowship is the freedom to explore and develop your own scientific interests.” —Chris Stanley, 2007 Shull Fellow 

The first two Shull Fellowships were awarded in 2006 to Andrew Christianson, who received his PhD in Physics from Colorado State University, and Wei-Ren Chen, a PhD graduate in Nuclear Science and Engineering from MIT. Both completed their terms and became staff research scientists at ORNL.

The 2007 Fellowships were awarded to Christopher Stanley, a PhD graduate in Polymer Science and Engineering from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and Sylvia McLain, a PhD graduate in Chemistry from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Olivier Delaire, a PhD in Materials Science from the California Institute of Technology was the 2008 Shull Fellow; Xianglin Ke (PhD in Physics, University of Wisconsin-Madison) followed in 2009; Yang Zhang (PhD, Nuclear Science and Technology, MIT) was the Shull Fellow in 2010; and in 2011, ORNL welcomed Yongqiang Cheng (PhD, Johns Hopkins University).

Wei-Ren Chen, the 2006 winner, went on to win a national Early Career Award in 2012 for his proposal to use theory, computation, and neutron scattering to characterize the structure and dynamics of soft matter.

“The Shull award at the beginning of my career provided me with the critical degree of freedom for my research of soft colloids,” Chen says. “It greatly helped me to obtain the Early Career Award funding from the Department of Energy this year.

” Chen, who enjoys classical music and reading history in his spare time, says the freedom to choose his own research topics, the neutron scattering beam time, and ORNL’s immense computational resources have been key to his research success.

“The beauty of the Shull Fellowship is the freedom to explore and develop your own scientific interests,” says 2007 Fellow Chris Stanley. Stanley developed a collaboration with Valerie Berthelier at the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville. The two researchers use neutrons to characterize the earliest structures formed by the huntingtin protein implicated in Huntington’s disease, a genetic neurological disorder. Using the high flux of the small-angle neutron scattering (SANS) beam lines at HFIR, they measured normal and pathological peptides and are now beginning to identify structural differences that could be important in this disease.


Stanley, now an instrument scientist on the EQ-SANS (Extended Q-Range SANS) instrument at SNS, is also using EQ-SANS for his work, as its event mode of data collection affords advantages for performing measurements on protein structural dynamics.


Sylvia McLain, co-fellow with Stanley in 2007, has since settled in the UK, where she is a UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Career Acceleration Fellow at the University of Oxford.

“At Oxford, I work in the Department of Biochemistry, where I have a research group that includes a postdoc, a PhD student, and a master’s student, with another postdoc on the way,” McLain says. The East Tennessee native investigates the structure and dynamics of biological molecules in solution on the atomic scale. She has recently published a high-impact paper in Angewandte Chemie on the association of peptides in solution as a model for protein folding and another in PloSONE on the structure of a cellulose precursor in solution.

The 2007 Shull Fellowship helped McLain expand her research to include more computation, she says, and to investigate the biophysics behind molecule association, which is important in any life-giving process.

“Fellowships of this type are always beneficial because you are awarded funding to do your own research, which is essential in establishing a scientific career.”

How is she finding life abroad? “I don’t have many hobbies these days, other than eating, pottering around my garden, and reading in my spare time, though I do blog about science and science policy and write for a UK national newspaper. I am very interested in the history and philosophy of science, so I try to spend a lot of time thinking and reading about this when I can,” McLain says.

Olivier Delaire, the 2008 Shull Fellow, is now a staff scientist in the Neutron and X-Ray Scattering Group in the Materials Science and Technology Division at ORNL. “The Shull Fellowship was for me a wonderful opportunity to grow as an independent scientist and take advantage of the world-class resources at ORNL,” says Delaire, who works on materials that can be used for energy technologies.

He investigates the fundamentals of atomic dynamics related to the transport of energy at the microscopic level. Quantum vibrations of atoms in crystalline lattices (phonons) are responsible for the transport of heat in semiconductors or insulators (such as thermoelectric materials, semiconductors for microelectronics, photovoltaics, and thermal barrier coatings).

“Phonons also interact with electrons and other elementary excitations in solids, resulting in interesting physics with useful applications for ferroelectrics, polarons, superconductivity, and multiferroics,” he says.

Having the Shull Fellowship meant having the freedom to establish his own research directions, as well as the opportunity to collaborate with outstanding scientists across different divisions at ORNL. “The interaction with scientists at SNS and HFIR also helped me to quickly gain expertise with techniques that I had not previously been exposed to, such as working with single-crystals.”

Delaire says he developed collaborations both within ORNL and in the broader science community as a collaborating principal investigator for a DOE-funded Energy Frontier Research Center. The work has led to several high-impact research papers.

When he is not working, Delaire enjoys the proximity of the Smoky Mountains for photography, hiking, and kayaking.

Xianglin Ke, the 2009 Shull Fellow, has moved on to a tenure-track assistant professorship in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Michigan State University. Ke works in experimental condensed matter physics and studies complex oxide materials, for which neutron scattering is a powerfully efficient tool.

“The neutron is a uniquely powerful ‘microscope’ that allows us to ‘see’ the atoms and molecules,” comments Yang Zhang, the 2010 Shull Fellow, whose field is soft and disordered matter. He is now an assistant professor in the Department of Nuclear, Plasma, and Radiological Engineering, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“Many of the amazing discoveries in the microscopic world are yet to come. It is a golden time for neutron scattering. The Shull Fellowship provides you with an opportunity to unleash your imagination,” Zhang says.

Zhang too continues his ties with ORNL from his new home in Illinois, with collaborations on neutron scattering experiments at SNS and HFIR.

Why should one apply for the Shull Fellowship? “SNS is the most intense pulsed accelerator-based neutron source in the world, and HFIR is a world-class reactor-based continuous source. ORNL also has the most powerful supercomputer in the world. Finally, the Shull Fellowship is the most prestigious fellowship in the neutron scattering field,” Zhang says.