OAK RIDGE, Tenn. (WATE) — Over the past three decades the director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory has overseen a number of incredible scientific projects at the lab, but now he is retiring.

We were able to sit down with Dr. Thomas Zacharia to talk about his time and accomplishments at the lab.

Question: 30 plus years at ORNL, tell me what it was like when you first started and the developments over time.

Dr. Zacharia: I joined the lab as a postdoc in 1987, a completely different time. The lab didn’t look anything like this. If you can imagine an old World War II kind of place, turn style, barbwire fence, and so the transformation that has occurred in the last 20-plus years of this laboratory has been impressive.

Question: When it comes to things you can’t see, how do you sell that?

Dr. Zacharia: I think it’s all about impact. Right, so there’s not a thing in the world that, if you live in the modern world, every human being has been touched by innovation from Oak Ridge National Laboratory whether it is textbooks that you learn in a classroom the periodic elements, to materials whether you are in a car or a plane or a train, it has been touched by Oak Ridge innovation.”

Question: Talk about what it’s like to avoid pitfalls.

Dr. Zacharia: First of all, the lab is all about not just scientists and engineers. One of the things that are really important about the national lab is that it’s all about team science. It requires, of course, scientists, inventors, and engineers but it also requires administrative professionals, you know, bargaining unit staff, craft workers, and skilled workers. So, it’s a team that makes a difference.

Question: You have the world’s fastest supercomputer here at ORNL, you’re not playing video games on it, or are you?

Dr. Zacharia: Well, I cannot tell you or anybody if we are playing video games or not, but no, we actually, our staff comes to work and tries to solve important problems like cures for cancer or COVID-related activities, developing new materials, studying climate and it impacts on humanity. So essentially solutions for now and into the future.

Question: “From a personal level, what do you hope you take away from this experience, your 35 years here, and what do you hope you leave with your coworkers.” 

Dr. Zacharia: First of all I take away, I leave with gratitude for the 35 years. I’ve always said that Oak Ridge National Laboratory has a soul, and what I mean by that is when you build a 35-year career, we lead very real lives, and from time to time, you need help from others, and this is an institution where our staff willingly support our coworkers. But what I really want to leave behind if I have a message for my colleagues at this laboratory is we have an amazing, amazing heritage from, you know 80-year heritage from the Manhattan project of not only scientific innovation but also empowerment.”

Doctor Zacharia said out of all of his accomplishments, one of his greatest is helping to create a team that makes a difference. He will retire at the end of the year.