The New Reality of Keeping a Cutting-Edge Research Lab Honed

By NREL Deputy Laboratory Director and Chief Operating Officer Julie Baker

NREL researchers were able to return to work during the COVID-19 pandemic by taking safety precautions and remaining diligent. That lab has emerged stronger from the challenge. Photo by Dennis Schroeder/NREL

Because I started my career at the Idaho National Laboratory’s (INL) nuclear operations, I learned that labs run 24/7. I was a non-degreed operator in its Chemical Processing Plant, and things never shut down.

That key lesson has proven invaluable during the COVID-19 pandemic, as I and the Leadership Team of the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have kept our lab functioning and contributing to the clean energy mission while also ensuring safety for our staff.

Maybe it’s also because I’m the mom of two active high school boys that I know how to cope with the unexpected. Surely parenting is day in and day out. But whatever the source, lessons learned in these unprecedented times have shown that hard work, attention to detail, and trust pay dividends.

For that, I credit my foundational experiences.

When I began my career as a 20-year old, I was running a uranium extraction process to recover reusable nuclear material by day, and at night, completing my technology degree at the University of Idaho.

Our shifts at the U.S. Department of Energy facility ran around the clock to coincide with reactor and other fuel reprocessing. I’ve jokingly said that Operations is kind of a hard life, and that maybe being a doctor would have been easier — no offense to doctors. During my 27 years there, I gradually moved up at INL, first becoming an engineer and then a nuclear facility manager. Still, the regimen remained the same. You don’t fool around with potentially hazardous material.

In 2016, my husband and I made a tough decision to leave Idaho with our two middle-school aged sons so that I could become NREL associate laboratory director for Facilities and Operations. In that capacity, I oversaw the laboratory’s Site Operations; Environment, Safety, Health, and Quality; Information Technology; and Security and Emergency Preparedness organizations.

NREL is different from INL, focused on clean energy. Additionally, it is about two-thirds the size of the 4,000-employee INL. As much as I valued my former workplace, I haven’t regretted my decision — even after the upheavals brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last December, shortly before our world shifted, I accepted the position of Deputy Laboratory Director and chief operating officer (COO).

All my training, as well as my instincts, were tested this year as we navigated uncharted waters. We’ve kept our lab functioning and contributing to the clean energy mission while ensuring safety for our staff.

While we were aware of news about the grave possibilities surrounding COVID, things accelerated quickly for us. On March 12, we issued an order to evacuate hundreds of staffers, calmly, from the Research Support Facility because of a suspected exposure there. This came just days after a similar case at another of our labs. Before long, most of the lab — about 86% of our 2,500 staffers — were teleworking productively in compliance with Gov. Jared Polis’ March 25 order for Coloradans to stay in place.

Then, for the first time in the lab’s 43-year history, our operations staff brought our facilities to “idle state,” with only a few long-running experiments continuing, while only basic maintenance was performed.

As part of our newly-formed Pandemic Response Team, I knew we had to convey clearly and accurately what we were doing — and so we began sending daily emails to the staff to keep them in the loop. We had many helpers. Our medical team developed a tracking system for employees to log potential COVID symptoms. We launched a Staying Healthy — Mind and Body page on our internal website to provide some options, including curated items from the daily briefing.

We focused on work/life balance. Under the new normal, our lab director, Martin Keller, held his first virtual all-hands meeting from his home office. We even assembled a virtual Take Our Kids to Work Day in April.

Our goal was to ensure that the NREL family, as we call ourselves, stayed connected. Gradually, we began phasing researchers back on campus.

In our daily meetings, a picture emerged of how to operate under these new circumstances. The realities of running a lab clarified:

· It’s difficult to wear a mask all day long (and drink coffee or water), so our Pandemic Response Team and leadership team sought to provide some relief for “mask fatigue.”

· There were plenty of cleaning supplies available. What we recognized was how much to keep on-hand, which type is preferred, and where to locate them so they are easily accessible.

· Each lab, depending on its mission, needed to develop a social distancing plan to ensure access as well as non-contamination.

· And we couldn’t forget normal safety operations and ensure that the new COVID controls were not creating unintended consequences.

With diligence, we were able to reboot the labs, and eventually, more than 500 staff were on campus at a given time, doing the work our mission prescribes.

We have a strategy and are proceeding with caution. Of course, things have changed. There are very few visitors, and the majority of the NREL staff continue to telecommute. Those who have to return must pass a training on the new systems in place. There’s a cost. Surely, we miss seeing colleagues in person — but it is a price we now have to pay.

As I learned at INL, I realize that lab operations are independent of work hours. Just as nothing can be taken for granted processing uranium, nothing can be ignored with this virus. Indeed, from my vantage point as COO, I see how intertwined every segment of the lab is during this pandemic. In a relatively short span of time, we have collectively found innovative ways to stay productive, safe, and even upbeat.

After negotiating this challenge, I believe we will emerge stronger — and with a more focused sense of research and mission. I’m proud of how our scientists, engineers, and support staff meshed. Hopefully, this type of synergy is being repeated throughout the country — and the world. In that sense, COVID has proven useful in demonstrating our ability to adapt and carry on.

From breakthroughs in fundamental science to new clean technologies to integrated energy systems that power our lives, NREL researchers are #TransformingEnergy