One of Knoxville's and Y-12's best assets

Posted: March 30, 2015 - 8:56am

In retrospect, Dr. Ashley Stowe's life path seems to have always been leading him to East Tennessee, Oak Ridge and Y-12; and here he's been able to achieve impressive successes, including the most recent, a Greater Knoxville Business Journal 40 under Forty award.

While still in high school, he already knew he wanted to make chemistry his career. He was preparing to sign up to join the nuclear Navy when a scholarship to Furman University in Greenville, S.C. came through. Stowe said Greenville is sort of "Knoxville on the other side of the mountains." By the time he was finishing his third chemistry degree, a doctorate at Florida State University, he had already decided he wanted to live and work in the Knoxville/Oak Ridge area.

In his seven years at Y-12, Stowe, 35, has become a senior chemist, Technology Fellow (only the second), and R&D 100 Award winner. As of Jan. 5, 2015, he can add the 40 under Forty award. Stowe was one of 40 young leaders recognized by the business monthly's eighth annual awards edition.

When talking about the award, or his work in general, Stowe is quick to credit and praise his colleagues.

"This is a nice feather in my cap, but I'm not doing all this work on my own. I got here because I'm surrounded by so many good people," Stowe said. "I don't like being in the spotlight. This is a team," he said, going on to name several colleagues who conduct research with him at Y-12: Vanderbilt University doctoral student Brenden Wiggins, Fisk University professor of physics Dr. Arnold Burger and Dr. Eric Lukosi, assistant professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Tennessee.

The 40 under Forty award program seeks to recognize "Knoxville's Best Assets" from a wide array of nominations of young professionals in myriad fields.

"From hundreds of nominations of individuals worthy of recognition, we aimed to create a diverse group that is representative of the many ways individuals make a living in our community and make our community a better place to live," said Greater Knoxville Business Journal Editor Amy Nolan.

Stowe's research at Y-12 currently centers on finding a replacement for helium-3, which is widely used in nuclear materials detection, but in critically short supply globally.

Y-12 named Stowe a Technology Fellow in 2013, allowing him to focus on researching a lithium-based semiconductor crystal 6LiInSe2, which shows promise for use in radiation detection devices. It was this innovation that resulted in the R&D Magazine award.

Jim Placke, director of the Analytical Chemistry Organization at Y-12, nominated Stowe for the 40 under Forty award, saying Stowe and his colleagues' work on the semiconductor crystal "will be the centerpiece for development of hand-held radiation detectors for nuclear nonproliferation and homeland security applications, as well as for improved neutron imaging."

Those devices have applications for fundamental neutron science, space exploration, and perhaps most importantly, nuclear nonproliferation, Stowe said.

"We live in a dangerous place and there are a number of people all over the country and world working tirelessly to make it safe," Stowe told the business journal. "My hope is the research I'm doing can come up with technology that will be transformational and help us as a country and as a world be safer."

Stowe credits one person, a high school teacher, with starting the chain reaction that led to his success. Greg Rushton was then a 20-something chemistry teacher in Stowe's hometown of Columbia, S.C. Instead of writing out equations on the board and lecturing, Rushton, now an associate professor of chemistry at Kennesaw State University, would quite literally spark his students' interest.
"He'd take us into the lab and literally blow something up or set something on fire," Stowe recalls. "Then he'd throw us the keys to the chemical closet and say, 'Now, what do you want to do?' "
Stowe would eventually like to move into research management, leading a team of scientists as they tackle difficult technical problems. In the meantime, he said he's relishing his life in the Knoxville area. He and his wife, Jenny (who has a master's degree in behavioral neuroscience and Stowe says "is a whole lot smarter than I am") have three children: Matt, 11; Anna, 10 and Jaynie, 8. The family enjoys hiking, sports and backyard farming together.

"Living in Knoxville, being at Y-12, I feel like I've got a good balance in life, having time at home with my family to recharge and then coming back here to do the best work I can and do it with integrity," Stowe said.

It looks as if Stowe passed his science spark on to his precocious son Matt, who is fascinated with his dad's work, science, history, weapons and all things nuclear.