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GCEP Technical Representative: ExxonMobil's Thomas Degnan

Thomas Degnan photoEvery GCEP sponsor has a technical representative who interacts with our faculty, staff and students, providing a technical link between the academic and commercial sides of the project.

Thomas Degnan, manager of breakthrough and leads generation for ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company, has been a GCEP technical representative for the past seven years. In February 2013, Degnan was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, one of the highest professional honors bestowed on engineers, for his many contributions to novel catalytic processes for improved lubricant, fuel and petrochemical production.

Degnan took time to answer some questions for us:

Briefly describe your role as a GCEP technical representative for ExxonMobil.
Working closely with ExxonMobil's management, I help coordinate technical interactions between ExxonMobil and GCEP researchers. I try to promote awareness of GCEP technical programs among ExxonMobil technical and managerial staff, and help link GCEP and ExxonMobil scientists working in areas of common scientific interest. Finally, along with the technical representatives of the other sponsoring companies, I work to coordinate scientific assessment of the proposals produced by the semi-annual GCEP request for proposal process, basing our assessments on sound science. This information is requested by GCEP to supplement the input provided by two independent expert groups and is used by the GCEP staff to develop recommendations of proposals to be funded. In many cases, I work closely with my peers within ExxonMobil who specialize in scientific areas specifically relevant to GCEP. Within ExxonMobil, we are fortunate to have a broad range of expertise in oil and natural gas and other energy areas, from which I draw extensively.

Talk about your interactions with GCEP researchers and students.
In addition to acting as the ExxonMobil facilitator and host for GCEP's Distinguished Lecturer series, I actively participate in the GCEP annual review. It has been a distinct pleasure to be part of luncheons and one-on-one discussions with many of the graduate students that GCEP supports. I also enjoy participating in the team that judges the best GCEP poster each year. It's very gratifying to see the enthusiasm that the students display in describing their work. While the scientific progress has been remarkable, a major part of GCEP's legacy will be the students it has produced.

What has been your favorite or most rewarding experience as a GCEP technical representative over the years?
I have really appreciated getting to know the GCEP principal investigators and thoroughly exploring their work. Many of the topics being investigated are outside my core area of expertise, which is catalysis. Gaining a better understanding of subjects like organic photovoltaics, plasmonics and flow batteries has given me the opportunity to stretch scientifically. At the same time, I have been impressed by the ability of the GCEP principal investigators to communicate their subject matter in a simple and straightforward way.

What insights have you gained in this capacity?
My association with GCEP has broadened my scientific perspectives. For example, as GCEP has increasingly expanded its reach to address emerging energy needs of the developing world, I have gained a better appreciation of the diversity of global needs for energy resources.

How does your role as a technical representative impact your work at ExxonMobil?
It is clear that expanding prosperity across a world with a growing population requires access to reliable and affordable energy supplies. ExxonMobil's role is to create the technologies and techniques to develop and supply energy to growing populations and economies—in a safe, secure and environmentally responsible manner. In my capacity as manager of breakthrough and new leads, I try to continually identify significant technical opportunities to improve the performance of ExxonMobil's businesses. GCEP is a good complement to my role as technology "scout" for ExxonMobil's refining and chemical business, because I am able to gain an early appreciation for potential scientific breakthroughs in energy technology. The timelines to commercialization for both GCEP and ExxonMobil's research efforts are long, typically greater than 10 years. However, the ultimate impact is potentially very large in both cases.

What advice would you give to GCEP students who are considering a technical career in the energy industry?
It is a great time to be exploring the scientific and technical aspects of energy. Improvements in the ways we generate and utilize energy are fundamental to improving standards of living globally. Individuals entering the energy industry today have the opportunity to dramatically improve the quality of life on our planet through improvements in energy efficiency and generation. In the course of my nearly 33-year career in the energy industry, I don't think I have ever seen a period so ripe with technical opportunity.

 
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