On its fact sheet Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) boasts that it’s “the largest science and energy national laboratory in the Department of Energy system.”  Originally known as Clinton Laboratories, after the town of Clinton, Tennessee, ORNL was created in the fall of 1943, for the purpose of separating uranium for the Manhattan Project, which led to the development of the world’s first atomic bomb.  Oak Ridge came under the auspices of the Department of Energy after it was created in the 1970s, in response to energy shortages.  Today, ORNL has a staff of 4480, including 2600 scientists and engineers.

Athena Safa-Sefat is one of those scientists.

Athena Sefat



Dr. Athena Safa-Sefat is a scientist at the Materials Sciences and Technology Division of the Physical Sciences Directorate at ORNL.

Athena obtained her B.S. and Ph.D. in (solid-state) Chemistry from McMaster University, Canada.She has won several awards, including the Gordon Battelle Award for Scientific Group Discovery and ORNL’s Science & Technology Early Career Award for Scientific Accomplishment.

At ORNL, Athena is the principal investigator of a couple of other projects that involve the making of superconducting wires and the exploration of superconductivity in three-dimensionally structured materials. Athena’s current research interests involve the design and synthesis of functional materials related to energy technologies, and their advanced thermodynamic and transport property characterizations.

Geek Puff’s co-founder, Toni Matlock, interviewed Athena via Skype, about her work.


Geek Puff: As an introduction, tell us your name and about your work and what you do?

Athena: Okay, so I’m a scientist at Oak Ridge National Lab. My name is Athena Sefat.

I work on designing crystals.

Here I have a couple of examples to show you. So these are crystals of calcium based materials, I don’t know if you see them. They’re just shiny solid pieces, that’s what a crystal is. Here are some vanadium based crystals, they’re more gray-ish, but they’re shiny. And again, they’re solid pieces.


Vanadium crystals (Source:

GEEK PUFF Fun Fact:  Vanadium was named after Vanadis, the goddess of beauty in Scandinavian mythology.

I design crystals, so what does that mean exactly? If you take a crystal that’s about a centimeter long and you magnify it about ten million times, you get something like this. Which is a repeating unit of atoms, okay? And what we do is we decide on the type of atoms that we want in a particular lattice. We decide on the coordination around the particular atom, and we decide on the concentration of substitutions, for example, on a particular atomic site. And because what that does, is that really determines the macroscopic physical properties of a material. So if we can design the atomic arrangements, and then come up with materials that are as big as these, so that we can actually get our hands on them and measure them, measure their properties, in a sense we’ve designed crystals. Because we go from something on an atomic scale to something that’s macroscopic, that we can physically touch, and do property measurements on. We can control the properties that way. My research involves designing crystals.


Vanadium chunks (Source:

GP: And how is that helpful in terms of energy function?

Athena: Energy function, very good question. Our work we would hope has a lot of impact. Again, when it comes to materials by design…because if you can design a material from the macroscopic scale, or rather the microscopic scale, the atomic scale, of exactly what you need, then you can control the functionality of a material. You can design high performance for battery materials, solar panels, superconducting materials. If you can really design the atomic arrangement, that controls the electronic properties of a material, hence, the functionality. So in that sense, it is materials by design. We’re really looking into the next generation of how to make things really by knowing what we’re doing. In that sense we can create high performance energy related materials. So that’s the type of research.


Athena Safa-Sefat (Credit: ORNL)

GP: It sounds very creative. We think of science as being this rigid, you do this, there are all these rules, but this sounds inventive and creative, would you agree?

Athena: Yeah, absolutely. I have a chemistry and a physics background, so that helps me design materials as well as look for properties that may be interesting. So in that sense, yeah it is creative. We do do a lot of materials, energy related materials, and we need to think about what it is and how we can functionalize and make materials more useful that we have today. In that sense, we’re really going back to the atomic, electronic scale and trying to control that. Yes it is creative but at the same time it’s very challenging.


Oak Ridge National Laboratory scientists used scanning transmission electron microscopy to measure atomic-scale magnetic behavior in several families of iron-based superconductors. (Photo courtesy ORNL)

GP: On a practical level, what are the top five things that you do as daily tasks? Something you do every day?

Athena: Okay. The first thing that I do when I show up to the office is to prioritize. What is most important? What are the types of meetings that are coming up that day, what are the deadlines? That’s number one, to think about what it is that I need to do for that day, needs to be done. Another one is supervision of postdocs and students, very important to make sure they’re okay, and that the projects are doing okay, and that they’re doing well, and if they need help, then they can get my input. What else? I do work on writing manuscripts and proposals on a daily basis, whether it be a paragraph or a page or what not. I do a lot of email communication with collaborators. Either internally at the lab or externally, nationally, internationally, we exchange a lot of data. Let’s see, copies of manuscripts, just discussions. A lot of emails, scientific emails, sending back and forth. What else? Let see, so that’s four… What else? Project management in general. Just to make sure that at the end of the day we’re on the right track and if not, we’ll change course a little bit. In that sense, I always remind myself and the people on the team to make sure that we have an end goal in mind, and if that is not working out we need to slightly change the way that we do things so that we make sure the next we’re more productive than today. So, project management. I guess that would be top five.

Here is a really good video by ORNL of Athena explaining her work on superconductors and superconducting materials. 
GP: What would you say the problems are in the world that your work solves? Or is trying to solve? 

Athena: Again, it relates back to materials by design. That’s huge, in the sense that again, if we can create the next, best, advanced, high performance, more economical materials, then we can really be internationally competitive and also successful. A lot of applied work will come out of that. My work is more fundamental research. So we worry about the details of materials and how they function and what not. But if we can create the next best thing, then we can really sell it to industry. And have it be more useful to the community.


Athena Safa-Sefat (Credit: ORNL)

GP: Right. So in layman’s terms, it’s solving problems for specifically energy, right?

Athena: For energy, for battery related materials, for solar panels, for superconductors, for magnets. So really, all sorts of things that you use every day, in a sense. In various kitchen things that you have sitting around, in that sense, those little components that go into the design of various things it what we work on.

GP: Yeah so it’s fundamental.

Athena: Yes, our research is very much fundamental, although we do a small amount of applied work.


A change of Hall and Seebeck effects point to large Fermi surface modification at the structural transition, preventing superconductivity at low temperatures. The change in the Fermi surface topology has been confirmed by angle-resolved photoemission spectroscopy. (Credit: ORNL)

GP: And so then, what scares you the most about your field?

Athena: Scares me the most? In my field…

…one thing that I worry about and I sometimes catch myself is, sometimes I want to solve a problem so bad that I spend and exert a lot of energy on it, even though it may not be that useful.

In a sense, I guess for me, I want to make sure that I’m trying to answer the right type of question that would benefit the society, I suppose, within my lifetime in some shape or form. With my field sometimes I worry about a little… Worry that a lot of intelligent people are worrying about, not the wrong problems, but the ones that may not necessarily have the greatest outcomes in a limited amount of time. That’s something that I sort of watch and I try to catch myself in time too.

GP: So what is one thing that you do over and over in your work that you recommend other do also?

Athena: Over and over, I would say commitment, to projects. If you always remind yourself that you’re committed to the project and you want to make sure that it succeeds, then you do everything within your power to make sure that’s the case, whether it be changing teams if necessary, whether it be changing the course of the work slightly, whether it be bringing in more people that can potentially do the work that you can not do, and that would be collaborators, that would have a different set of expertise and what not. But if you always remind yourself that you’re committed to the success of that project, then you really just have that goal in mind and you always look towards it. Anything else in the way that may stop you from getting there, then you can just resolve it, because you just know that end game, I suppose. That I do remind myself every other day, I suppose, to make sure that things are going smoothly.

GP: Good. That’s great advice. Okay, so from where do you draw strength to succeed in your work?

Athena: Okay. I would say that I watch my mom, I must admit. She’s been a great role model over the years, she’s always taught me to be independent. And that I can do anything. Beyond that—she is very hard working as well. Beyond that I would say that I have a lot of admiration for people that know more than me. So I always look up to my upper management. I always look up to people that would be able to give me advice. And those that are wiser, that have been around more. I just admire people that know more and can do more and are organized more I suppose. Where I draw my strength I suppose when I’m down one day and I feel like I’m not doing well. I just remind myself that there are those that are busier than me, that are doing better than me, and that I should really try to do the same thing. I should try to be stronger, I should think faster, I should have better ideas, that I can do more, I suppose. I always look up to those that do better than me, I suppose. I draw my inspiration.

GP: That’s great. So what is one trend currently in the world, in your field or outside your field, currently, that excites you?

Athena: Trend…I’m not sure what you mean by trend.

GP: Perhaps something that is a hot topic that’s very popular right now that is emerging that you think is exciting, that has potential.

Athena: Okay, so getting back to my field, which is materials by design, I’m an experimentalist. Nowadays we try to collaborate a lot more with theorists. Those that do a lot of theoretical calculations.

A trend that I see is more of a communication between experimentalists and theorists.

Because in a sense, if we can design a material and if they can, via theory, predict what the properties should be, and if we measure the crystal to have that certain property, then we’re on the same page. So in that sense, that’s one of the trends that I’ve seen recently, and I’ve seen it be more supported with Department of Energy and also internally at the labs, so that there is more communication between the two sets of people, experimentalists and theorists, and we try to understand each other more and try to have a level ground so that we can communicate about what the end goal is. What is it that we’re trying to achieve, and it’s a matter of predicting better materials, higher performance materials, energy related materials, and the question is how do we get there? And it’s a combination of us, experimentalists, to design and test, and for them to come up with potentially theories that can drive the same outcomes. So in a sense they can help us out in the research, by narrowing our choices, and telling us exactly what to make in the lab. Hence, a certain property. In that sense, the communication, that’s what I’ve been most excited about in the past year.

GP: That is exciting! That’s great. Excellent. Okay, is there a book, or piece of art, or media, or music, or anything that you would recommend to our community?

Athena: Well, piece of art or music I’m not so sure, but books I would say there are several entertaining chemistry, nature related books, I suppose. One of the reasons I’m in the field is because of my love of nature, and mother nature, and life in general, trying to understand things as much as I can. They’re actually very entertaining. One is called The Disappearing Spoon, one is called The Thirteenth Element, and it’s on phosphorus, and one is called The Elements of Murder. They sort of review the periodic table and tell you how fascinating different properties of elements are, and sort of, what a beautiful world we live in. And that knowledge is power, I guess one thing that I wanted to make sure that I tell your audience,

is that the more you know, the more powerful you are — be knowledgeable as much as you can in the field.

I would suggest more of chemistry, geeky books I suppose.

GP: Yeah, well those are great, I love it.

Athena: They’ll give you admirations for nature. 

GP: Alright, so one last question, outside of work, what do you do to relax or have fun?

Athena: Okay, very good question. Not a lot of people know this about me, but I spend a lot of time at the gym.

GP: Really, you work out?

Athena: I do work out, almost every day.

GP: That’s fantastic.

Athena: It might sound very sad but that’s where I spend a lot of outside of work hours, I must admit.

GP: That’s great, good, nice. Well, is there anything else that I haven’t asked you that you kind of expected or hoped I would ask or wanna answer?

Athena: Goodness, well

I would say to the female audience, to not be discouraged, one of the experiences that I’ve had in time, is that you might have to work a little harder to get noticed professionally, and be respected, but don’t be discouraged, because you can do it.

Just again, knowledge is power. As long as you know, they will notice. In that sense, do exactly what you want to do. And don’t let anything or anyone stop you in a sense.



Just keep at it and be persistent, is what I would say.