Ward Plummer Elected to National Academy of Sciences

KNOXVILLE -– University of Tennessee Distinguished Professor Ward Plummer has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), one of the highest honors bestowed upon an American scientist.

Plummer, who came to UT in 1992, is a faculty member in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and holds a joint appointment at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

“Ward Plummer is the epitome of the superb scientist, teacher and university citizen,” said UT Chancellor Loren Crabtree. “By being elected to the National Academy, Ward has distinguished himself as one of our nation’s leading minds, and by association, places UT in elite company. The strength of the faculty is a hallmark of a great university. Through this distinction, Ward brings acclaim not only to himself, but to the entire university.”

Academy members are elected in recognition of their distinguished and original research achievements. Plummer, 65, specializes in surface physics — investigating the electronic, magnetic, and structural properties of a material’s surface at the atomic scale. The author or co-author of more than 300 publications, he is listed among the 1,000 Most Cited Physicists (1981-1997) as determined by the Institute for Scientific Information. He also has mentored more than 70 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, which he considers his most important contribution to science.

“My perspective is that my legacy will be the minds I molded; not the papers I wrote or the prizes I won,” said Plummer.

“This is a wonderful tribute to Ward’s history of excellence as a scientist,” said Bruce Bursten, distinguished professor of chemistry and dean of UT’s College of Arts and Sciences. “It is a terrific honor for him, for the college, and the university.”

“He represents the complete picture of a university professor,” said Soren Sorensen, professor and head of UT’s Department of Physics and Astronomy. “He’s made outstanding research contributions; he has taught at all levels, undergraduate through graduate; and has been the mentor for countless young physicists.”

In fact, Plummer won the American Vacuum Society’s prestigious Medard V. Welch Award in 2001 in part for his training of new scientists. This dedication to educating the next generation is what he hopes to bring to the Academy, which is charged with furthering science for the general welfare.

“The most important thing on our agenda right now is global competitiveness — training young scientists — period,” said Plummer. He adds that he is interested less in programmatic research and more in curiosity-driven work, an idea he hopes future scientific leaders will embrace.

“I tell my students and postdocs that if you write a research proposal which is funded and at the end of the grant you have accomplished what you wrote, it is a failure,” he said. “You should have found something new and be going in a new direction. We have coined a phrase for this: emergent phenomena. That’s our fancy title for serendipity.”

Veerle Keppens, an assistant professor of engineering recruited by Plummer to join UT, looks to him for exactly that sort of guidance.

“Ward is always incredibly supportive to young faculty and researchers, and this support goes far beyond hiring,” said Keppens. “I know I can always count on Ward for advice regarding proposals and matching funds. He’s also the driving force behind the new Joint Institute for Advanced Materials, which will house some of the world’s most advanced facilities in materials physics. I’m truly excited to hear he finally got the honor he deserves.”

Hanno Weitering, professor of physics and another Plummer recruit, says that Plummer’s interest in his young associates is a long-term commitment.

“He advances the careers of people,” Weitering says. “It doesn’t stop when you walk out with a degree, or find the next postdoc or faculty position. He’s mentoring all along.”

Robert Moore, who is finishing a doctoral degree under Plummer’s supervision, echoes that sentiment.

“I have been extremely fortunate to work with Ward,” Moore says, “learning not only the technical aspects necessary to produce world class physics, but the personal aspects necessary to thrive in a career where collaboration is essential for progress. His active promotion of me has given me recognition that would take decades to accomplish on my own. Even after graduation, I will always seek his advice.”

The 2006 class for the NAS includes 72 members and 18 foreign associates and brings the active membership to 2,013. More than 200 hold Nobel Prizes. The Academy was established in 1863 when Abraham Lincoln signed a congressional act of incorporation, establishing the body to act as an official advisor to the federal government on scientific and technical matters.

To read the official NAS announcement, visit http://www4.nationalacademies.org/news.nsf/isbn/04252006?OpenDocument.

For more information on Plummer, visit http://www.phys.utk.edu/WPWebSite/ewp_main.htm.

At ORNL, Plummer helps lead research at the Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences in complex nanophase “hard” materials systems, including the crosscutting areas of interfaces and reduced dimensionality that become scientifically critical on the nanoscale.

Plummer and colleagues at ORNL also are working with scanning tunneling microscope designers to build advanced ultrahigh-vacuum scanning microscopy probes for research at CNMS. This instrumentation will enable studies of quantum transport in nanoscale systems and fabrication and characterization of nanoscale devices. Combining cutting-edge imaging capabilities, the STM will guide deposition of metallic and semiconducting films using molecular beam epitaxy.