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Diversity Brings a ‘Fresh Set of Eyes’ and More to NETL Workplace

Working with researchers from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds has made an indelible impression on NETL’s Mike Bergen about the positive power of diversity.

“I am a huge proponent of diversity,” said Bergen, a research engineer whose duties include managing 42 employees. “Scientists and engineers from other countries are often taught differently and have alternate ways to approach challenges and problems. Diversity creates synergy. It brings a fresh set of eyes to an issue, and it makes the team stronger.”

At NETL, where diversity is a priority across all Lab operations, Bergen stands out as a passionate advocate for inclusion and developing workplace cultures that are welcoming to all and where every individual can make important contributions.

One of Bergen’s areas of responsibility is NETL’s Reaction Engineering Team. He points to diversity on this team as a stellar example of how men and women from different cultures and countries of origin — including Cameroon, China, Egypt, India and the United States — can learn to appreciate and value their differences and use them to help solve complex energy research issues.

Scientists and engineers on this team work together to complete ground-breaking research in microwave catalysis technology to improve chemical conversions and discover new processes to manufacture high-value chemicals, fuels, fuel additives and other products from fossil energy resources with enhanced efficiency and at lower cost.

According to Bergen and others, diversity plays an important role in meeting those research objectives.

“The group (about 20 federal employees and contractors) has learned to truly welcome and treat all members as equals and respect the varied viewpoints of each researcher regardless of ethnic and racial background, religion or gender. Even when there are disagreements on ideas and research pathways, the ideas from the whole group are considered equally before decisions are made,” said Bergen, who was raised in Morgantown, West Virginia, studied at West Virginia University and has worked at NETL’s Morgantown location for 13 years.

Pranjali Muley, a research scientist from India who joined the team one year ago as an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) fellow, saw that commitment to diversity produce results when the team was developing a business case for funding fundamental microwave reaction research.

As part of that effort, the team had to list equipment and tools needed for the research. “Because we are such a diverse group, we all came up with different items. Not a single item was redundant. Someone said we needed a certain type of microwave system. Others said we needed a high-speed camera to resolve various issues and so on. If we had not been such a diverse group, it’s unlikely we would have been so comprehensive,” Muley said.

She believes a workplace that values diversity also makes everyone comfortable to speak up and make contributions. “I feel comfortable voicing my opinion and debating scientifically at my workplace. I think one of the reasons is because our workforce culture is one that values diversity and inclusion. When I walk into a room for a presentation, I see a diverse group and I don’t feel alienated or the odd woman out,” Muley said.

The number of women on the Reaction Engineering Team has increased since Christina Wildfire joined NETL in 2016. “We’re not quite at the point where we are about half men and half women, but we are getting there,” she said.

“I think having a diverse group is the reason our group works so well. We all have different strengths and weaknesses and come from different backgrounds in our research and lives. This has resulted in unique problem-solving dynamics and created a strong bond in the team. When you are open to learning from other people and cultures, you are open to new ideas, which can lead to great innovations,” Wildfire explained.

Victor Abdelsayed, a senior scientist who was raised in Egypt, pointed out there are similarities between developing alloys and building a strong research team.

“To create high-performance materials, you combine metals to form an alloy that has properties that are superior to the individual metals. Diversity is similar. You take diverse talents and perspectives, bring them together in a workplace culture that values innovative thinking and new approaches to find solutions, and develop a team that’s stronger than any single person or group of persons who share the same or similar educational or cultural background,” he said. 

“Diversity is so important to our Reaction Engineering Team because when you have a problem that you need to resolve, different types of expertise from individuals with different problem-solving skills is critical,” Abdelsayed added.

He also added:“I think diversity is one of the best ways to ensure success within any organization or a team.”

Several other researchers in Reaction Engineering praised the impact of diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

“An inclusive culture creates a happier work environment. Researchers feel engaged in the work and feel like they are making significant contributions toward the team’s work portfolio. They feel ownership in the work. This enhances innovation, productivity and retention of our talent,” said Dushyant Shekhawat, the team’s supervisor.

Candice Ellison, a research engineer with two years on the team, as well as Isaac Gamwo, a chemical engineer who was raised in Cameroon, a country in Central Africa, agreed.

“We have regular team meetings where we discuss ongoing research areas within our team. During these meetings, we all discuss and provide feedback to each other on the research problems we are facing. By having so many different perspectives contributed by our diverse and interdisciplinary team, we can leverage each person’s expertise and tackle difficult research problems. This collaborative environment within our team encourages participation and makes everyone feel valued,” Ellison said.

Yan Zhou, a research engineer from China, joined NETL as a contractor after completing doctoral studies at the University of Georgia.

“Diversity brings different thoughts and ideas to Reaction Engineering and NETL, which helps researchers engage in better science and deliver improved technologies. Diversity provides opportunities for colleagues to learn from each other and to think differently or take new approaches to their research projects,” Zhou said.

The team has found that establishing a positive culture of diversity takes effort and creativity. 

“We do frequent potluck lunches at which everyone brings different ethnic dishes and we eat together. This not only gives everyone a taste of some unique foods from around the world, it provides some ‘bonding’ time among the staff. Nothing is better than food as a conversation starter,” Shekhawat said, speaking of activities prior to COVID-19.

“Also, we get together for lunches to celebrate significant team accomplishments or for birthday celebrations, as well as special events such as Christmas and Diwali (the Hindu festival of lights),” he added.

Such events are not only fun but are opportunities to enjoy such delicacies as samosa (an Indian appetizer), falafel, a Middle Eastern dish made from a mixture of chickpeas (or fava beans), fresh herbs and spices, and savory Chinese dishes.

“Some of my favorites are the vegan foods that I tried for the first time,” Wildfire said.

Looking ahead, Research Engineering’s Mark Smith is working with NETL’s Diversity and Inclusion program to organize lunch-and-learn sessions. Areas of focus may include implicit bias (an unconscious preference for or against a person or group) or understanding how body language and gestures are interpreted among various cultures.

Bergen is excited about moving forward with the sessions. “I am fascinated by different cultures and enjoy learning about customs or beliefs of those unlike me,” he said. “I have been fortunate that I was taught the value of diversity at a very young age and have continued to promote diversity as much as possible.”

The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory develops and commercializes advanced technologies that provide reliable and affordable solutions to America’s energy challenges. NETL’s work supports DOE’s mission to advance the national, economic and energy security of the United States.