Ken Tobin: Beginning a new chapter for ORAU’s Research and University Partnerships Office
In 2020, ORAU welcomed Ken Tobin, Ph.D., as the new vice president of the Research and University Partnerships Office. He brings to ORAU over three decades of experience at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where he was an ORNL Corporate Research Fellow, served as director of several divisions across the laboratory enterprise, and focused on research and development and strategic partnerships. Tobin has authored and coauthored more than 180 publications and holds 15 United States patents. His wealth of experience in research, product development, business development and protecting intellectual property will be invaluable to ORAU as our research enterprise enters a new and exciting phase.
What is it like to come into a new position in the middle of a pandemic?
It’s absolutely unique. When I decided to retire from ORNL, the world was fine. I was interested in continuing to do something that I thought would be of value to the community and to myself, and I was ready to do something different. I’d been at ORNL for a very long time. I learned about the position at ORAU through some colleagues, interviewed a couple of times through January and February, and then was asked if I’d like the job—of which I was very honored—and decided to take it. I started in May, during the COVID era. I have worked from home the entire time I’ve been at ORAU. While I’ve gotten to meet a lot of people through Zoom and GoToMeeting, it’s a whole different way to meet people. Learning what people do and how they’re associated with the company sticks in your mind in a whole different way than if we were in a conventional office environment or laboratory environment. It’s been unique from that perspective.
What excites you about being vice president of the Research and University Partnerships Office?
I really like the fact that ORAU is all about the consortium and finding ways to bring value to the university system, which trickles down to our whole STEM education abilities and programs and getting students interested in careers that are valuable to our country and the world. I did my own research for a very long time and drove research organizations at ORNL and that was always great because it was valuable stuff that we were doing. I’ve had opportunities to work with faculty who had come to work in my groups or divisions on sabbatical or with graduate students or with post-docs, and always really liked that part. I look at my position as something where I can reach out and work with universities in a way I hadn’t been able to in the past. That’s why it’s so interesting.
What kind of research have you done?
I’m a nuclear engineer by training and education. When I was doing my Ph.D., I got involved in image processing— the ability to process data coming off of an electronic imaging device, whether it was a neutron imager, optical, infra-red, X-ray, CT, PET or SPECT scanner. As time goes on, there’s more data, devices work faster—so it’s a really challenging and interesting field.
When I came to ORNL, I began work helping develop sensors for measuring temperature in harsh environments, high-speed rotating environments like turbine engines and things like this. As I was at the lab longer, I had an opportunity to become a group leader for a group that would allow me to get back into the imaging work so I started doing more of that kind of work again. We did a lot of work with companies so I had an opportunity to develop a lot of intellectual property around technologies we were developing. We did a lot of work in industry, like helping develop automation methods, understanding manufacturing processes and rapidly improving them so they could produce less waste, save money, etc.
I also leveraged the industry work to address issues in the biomedical industry. We applied some of the semiconductor work we did to biomedicine. For example, using commercial fundus (eye) cameras for detecting and diagnosing diabetic retinopathy, and developing a whole telemedicine network around that so we could ship that technology out into the community. In populations that don’t have a lot of resources, if you were diabetic you could go to your general practitioner or endocrinologist’s office to have your eyes tested.
Over time, the work I was doing in signal processing and controls led to an opportunity to drive the electrical and electronics research division at ORNL. I led that division for about eight years. Then I had the opportunity to step into the reactor and nuclear systems division and start focusing on nuclear energy. I led that division for a little over two years. We were looking at advanced reactors. Oak Ridge has a very long history in molten salt reactors and we had a molten salt reactor program that was part of DOE’s nuclear energy program. I got to work with some of the people who had been involved with the molten salt rector experiment back in the 1970s. That was pretty cool.
Then I had an opportunity to move into the institutional planning office and look at what the laboratory was doing in terms of investing its discretionary dollars internally for funding research and development and how to invest our discretionary dollars into business development activities that the different directorates have going on.
Sounds like the perfect experience for leading the Research and University Partnerships Office.
I do feel like my past has put me in a good position to work with ORAU and our researchers and our programs as we go forward. And I really like the idea of being able to bring in the university capabilities because we have over 127 universities with laboratories and special facilities and fantastic faculty and wonderful students who can bring those minds and resources to bear.
One of the first big projects I’ve gotten to lead since coming to ORAU is Sara Alert™ Academic, which involves our partnership with MITRE Corporation and our universities. ORAU and MITRE are both members of the COVID-19 Healthcare Coalition and we have been working together through a strategic partnership to address a number of issues, Sara Alert™ Academic being one of them.
Sara Alert™ is a standards-based, open source tool developed by MITRE that automates the process of public health monitoring and reporting of individuals exposed to or infected with COVID-19 or any infectious disease. ORAU’s Sara Alert™ Academic takes MITRE’s Public Health version of Sara Alert™ and tailors it to the university environment for monitoring students, faculty, and staff. The tool assists with rapid identification of exposed individuals, ensures immediate referral for care, provides secure information exchange that protects individuals’ data; and automates workflow for university health staff to reduce burden. We rolled out the tool through a series of webinars in November and December and are proud to be working with our university partners and MITRE on this important project.
Any final thoughts?
The COVID-19 era is a challenge, but maybe it’s putting us in a position to stop, pause and take a look at where we really should be going. The world is going to move forward a bit differently than it had been back in January or February of 2020. So now we’re in a position to look at how we can make an impact going forward. And as we have a vaccine developed over the next several months and people start wandering back in the wild, we’ll be able to leverage this time to think and start turning it into new ways to work and new opportunities for ORAU.