Meet Lance Wheeler
Researcher Lance Wheeler pays a lot of attention to surfaces—and that has paid off both in the lab and on the ice.
The former college hockey player from Minnesota, who also is a competitive curler, has a background in nanoparticles and surface chemistry of nanoparticles. And NREL gives him an unprecedented outlet for his passions. "Colorado is unique. I moved out here thinking I wouldn't curl anymore, and now I curl more than ever," he says. In fact, he bought a house less than a mile from the Denver Curling Club—which is only a few miles from the lab. "I spend the majority of my life at the curling club or at work," he says. He finds the challenges in both suit his personality.
"I'm a person who really focuses on something. I really don't like to do things just half-way," he says. "If I decide I'm going to do science, I'm going to do it at the best place to do science in the world. I'm going to do it as hard as I can. Similarly, with curling, I'm not good at being just a recreational athlete. I decided to do it and get better. Both of those things—curling and science—fit the sort of mindset I have. Both operate with teamwork aspects as well, whether you're working with your partner and other teammates to get a [curling] rock where it needs to go, or you're in the lab trying to get experiments to work properly."
Outside of NREL, Lance made an intentional choice to concentrate on curling. "I could go skiing every weekend and be a very marginal skier—but I decided to not buy a ski pass anymore. I was just going to curl. Also, climbing was a big draw, but I want to focus on one thing. Otherwise, I get frustrated at not being better at what I'm doing." He's getting results on the rink. He and his partner made the quarterfinals in the U.S. national championships—and hope someday to win an Olympic medal. "Curling lets me compete, and I know it's a sport I can compete in until I'm old. You can play at a high level of curling until you're 50. I intend to do that." It doesn't hurt that the sport involves intense calculations about surface friction (thus the sweeping with brooms) and physics of a curling stone spinning and colliding with other stones.
Joining the Best Team…at NREL
While he's not certain how he embraced his research field, Lance knows he "followed what seemed like the most exciting and promising thing to be doing. You dive into these things and figure out they're really interesting. You actually make progress on this interesting thing that other people care about, something that makes a difference in the scientific community."
NREL was his gold medal. "The people who work here on quantum dots are the best in the world. I was lucky enough as a Ph.D. student to get to know some of these folks, so I knew that if I could come here, I'd have people I'd get along with, doing awesome research."
That was the case when some basic research he was conducting yielded an "a-ha!" moment: he found a way to apply a lab discovery into switchable solar window technology. By partnering with another NREL expert, his pursuit of a path to get this basic research out of the lab and into the marketplace succeeded.
That's only one thing that satisfies him. "People come to NREL because of the mission, for environmental and energy stewardship," he says—a mission different than one that can be found in private industry. In Lance's case, he's optimistic that the photovoltaic window can help reduce building energy costs. "This would transform buildings from energy sinks to energy producers. A great way to do that is to take the most energy-inefficient element and give it the ability to generate electricity."
Developing a breakthrough idea is one example of how work in the lab can impact the world. "It's fun to think about the large-scale impacts you can have by doing things in the lab." Little things add up in his life. "I'm committed to things and not giving up. That means being willing to take time—I guess that's wired into my brain. If something's not working, my brain obsesses about it until I can get it to work."
He believes that quality flows into an area that is underappreciated: "To be a good scientist, you have to be creative." Creativity can lead to big ideas. His ability to take time to think on a grand scale, "coupled with my ability to focus on things longer than the average human can, add up to successful science—and darn good curling," he laughs. "Both are about obsessing on mechanics."
Because he's at NREL, he doesn't have to choose between work and outside passions. NREL has three curling teams currently playing, and a legion of world-class scientists in his areas of nanomaterials, photovoltaics, and window technology. Scientists are pursuing a range of projects, with members combining chemistry and nanoscience backgrounds to discover new things. "Usually when we're done finding them, we go have a beer," he says—exactly like curling. Happily, Lance can straddle both worlds daily—and does so riding his bike to the lab. "I do it because I don't believe in polluting the earth," he says, "and it's a good warm-up for curling."