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Get to Know ARPA-E Director Dr. Ellen Williams

May 21, 2015 

Dr. Ellen Williams was confirmed by the United States Senate on Monday, December 8, 2014 as the Director of the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).

Prior to joining ARPA-E, Dr. Williams served as the Chief Scientist for BP, a position she has held since January 2010. She is currently on a leave of absence from the University of Maryland where she is a Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Physics and the Institute for Physical Science and Technology. While at Maryland, Dr. Williams founded the University of Maryland Materials Research Science and Engineering Center and served as its Director from 1996 through 2009.

Dr. Ellen Williams Summit 2015
(Photo: Dr. Ellen Williams and moderator Phyllis Cuttino, Director,Clean Energy Initiative, 
The Pew Charitable Trusts at the 2015 ARPA-E Innovation Summit)

Get to know more about Dr. Williams in this Q &A, adapted and excerpted from the Fireside Chat with Dr. Ellen Williams video from the 2015 ARPA-E Innovation Summit.

Q: What first attracted you to pursue a career in science and research?

A: I was born in the Midwest in Oshkosh, Wisconsin and grew up in the suburbs of Detroit in a town called Livonia. My childhood was infused with the excitement of the Motor City, but as a child I didn't really know what science was. My dad was an engineer, and I was lucky enough to be enrolled in a great school system. I had teachers who were very creative and encouraged us to look at things in different ways. By the time I was in high school, I had great calculus and chemistry teachers, and I knew I wanted to do something in the science field. After a positive experience at a six-week summer science program at Michigan State University (MSU), I entered MSU’s 1972 freshman class as an Alumni Distinguished Scholar and went on to major in chemistry. At MSU, my undergraduate advisor encouraged me to take graduate-level statistical mechanics classes, which really shaped my future research interests. From there, I decided to go on to graduate school where I obtained my doctorate in chemistry from the California Institute of Technology, and the rest is history!

Dr. Ellen Williams Swearing In Ceremony
(Photo: Dr. Ellen Williams, accompanied by her husband Dr. Neil Gehrels, is sworn in as ARPA-E Director by U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. Photo Credit: Hai Duong)

Q: We hear you’re not the only scientist in the family – can you tell us a little bit more about your family?

A. Yes, my husband, Neil Gehrels, is an astrophysicist at the Goddard Space Flight Center. We met and got married while in graduate school at Caltech. We joke that because my area of specialty is materials research (atoms and milli-electron-volt energy scales) and his field is astrophysics (parsec scales and gamma rays), between the two of us, we can span the extremes of science. As for my children, my son is an electrical engineer and my daughter is doing work in applied physics, so they've bred true.

Dr. Williams Colorado Energy Expo
(Photo: Dr. Williams provides the keynote address at the Colorado Energy Expo on May 13, 2015.)

Q: You’ve had a career in academia as a professor at the University of Maryland Physics Department and Physics Institute, founded and directed the UMD Materials Research Science and Engineering Center, joined the corporate world as the Chief Scientist for BP, and you've worked with both DOD and DARPA. When you look back on all those experiences, what would you say are the important “ingredients” or elements for innovation and scientific breakthroughs? 

A: I started out my research career in material science, surface physics and nanoelectronics. Throughout my career, I’ve always worked in an interdisciplinary way; with people in the fields of chemistry, material science, physics and chemical engineering, while also developing strong collaborations between experimentalists and theorists. One thing that has dramatically shaped advances in science and engineering over the last 30 years is the power that to digitize our data and perform computational analysis. Because of this, we are now able to move through the scientific process faster. We can work with theorists to design an experiment to rigorously test a hypothesis, move it through quickly, analyze the data and get back to the theorists and interpret what it means. In 30 years, I’ve seen a vast acceleration in how quickly we can learn new things and act on them. It's an amazing transformation.  

Q: Let’s talk a little bit about your role here at ARPA-E: What are your priorities and what are some of the challenges that you want to tackle during your time here? 

A: A big priority is simply expanding ARPA-E’s impact. It’s hard to believe that ARPA-E is only six years old, and when you look at how the activities of the Agency have been fueling a pipeline of innovation, it’s an amazing feat for such a young Agency. At ARPA-E, we have a strong institutional structure that continues to increase awareness and activity worldwide in energy research. ARPA-E’s focused perspective on innovative, sophisticated technological advances coupled with an unwavering and realistic look at market realities compliments the activities of other federal R&D programs. ARPA-E is able to identify areas where a focused investment can break through a roadblock or create a new pathway to energy innovation. Over the course of the next few years, we expect to see the growth and blossoming of our investments from the last five years.

Dr. Williams in 3D printed Strati 
(Photo: Dr. Williams tests out Local Motors’ 3D printed Strati at the 2015 ARPA-E Innovation Summit.)

Q: Are there any final words you'd like to share with our readers?

A: At ARPA-E, success depends on our close connections with the innovative spirits in energy technology and business development. We draw from this community for our Program Directors, our Technology-to-Market Advisors and for the great teams who bring their concepts to ARPA-E under our funding opportunity announcements. I would like to thank everyone who engages with the Agency and I encourage you all to stay connected to ARPA-E through our multiple channels including our events, newsletter and social media platforms.

I look forward to seeing you at the 2016 Summit!

 Dr. Williams Tech Showcase 2015(Photo: Dr. Williams at the 2015 ARPA-E Innovation Summit)