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ORNL Graduate Student Research Profile: Adam Wonder

Veteran steers passion of auto mechanics into advanced mechanical design at ORNL


Adam Wonder

Veteran and Lab Tech participant Adam Wonder uses his love of mechanical engineering and knowledge of computer-aided design and drafting to help develop neutron polarization instruments at the world-renowned Spallation Neutron Source at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Ridder, ORAU employee)

In 2012, Adam Wonder returned from deployment in Afghanistan as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves. It had been two years since he last walked the paths of a university campus, and he knew he wanted to finish the education he had started as an undergraduate. He just wasn’t sure he wanted to remain in the field he had chosen.

Bearing this uncertainty, he entered into Pellissippi State Community College’s engineering transfer program designed to prepare students for coursework at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He liked his part-time classes at Pellissippi well enough, but it wasn’t until he accepted an apprenticeship to become a full-time certified Automotive Technician that he fully accepted his decision to become a mechanical engineer.

After advancing to a full-time course load at Pellissippi while juggling full-time work, he applied and was accepted to the Laboratory Technology Program administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), which taught him advanced manufacturing techniques including the ins and outs of 3-D printing using the software program SolidWorks.

“Anyone who is not already aware would be amazed by the growing capabilities of 3-D printing,” said Wonder, who received his certification as a SolidWorks Associate as a result of his participation in the AMWDP. “I, for one, was totally unaware of the advantages and capabilities of 3-D printing and carbon composite technologies. The technology can create plastics, prosthetics, food, metal parts and even human body parts.”

Pleased with his experience in AMWDP, Wonder jumped on board an additional ORISE research opportunity, one that has since positioned him at one of the most renowned facilities at ORNL: the Spallation Neutron Source.

“As part of the Lab Tech Program at ORNL, I collaborate with a group of scientists that develop neutron polarization instruments for the Spallation Neutron Source and High Flux Isotope Reactor,” said Wonder, who receives guidance from his mentor Dr. Lee Robertson in the Neutron Sciences Directorate. “A big part of my job is to develop the mechanical design of these instruments, and see them through machining, fabrication and final assembly.”

Polarized neutrons are those whose spin orientation is in a particular direction, like toward that of a magnetic field, rather than at random. Scientists study polarized neutrons for many purposes, including for clues to the structure of the nucleus, or the inner most part of an atom that contains the protons and neutrons. 

The program has exposed him to a wide variety of technology and design challenges―like high-vacuum and high-powered systems―while also affording him the unique opportunity to gain feedback on his own mechanical drawings from the machinists fabricating his designs.

“I have thoroughly enjoyed designing projects and getting to see them come together from concept to final assembly and end use,” said Wonder. “It has been a very valuable and rewarding experience.”

Wonder, who joined the Lab Tech program in spring 2015, plans to finish his master’s in mechanical engineering and pursue a career in design and development, whether it’s for research and development, aerospace, or his strongest passion, cars. In his spare time, he builds and drives drift cars, having built a 1989 Nissan 240sx from the ground up, including chassis and suspension modification and fabrication, complete engine rebuild, and performance tuning.

Whatever his ultimate path, he knows the real-world experience gained at ORNL will drive him forward.

“This has been one of the most valuable experiences of my life. I enjoy coming into work every day and working on various exciting projects,” said Wonder. “I’m incredibly blessed and thankful for this opportunity and I can’t wait to see where it leads me.”