Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Travis McLing received his doctorate from the University of Idaho.
Travis McLing's Butte memories are of the athletic variety. The Laurel native came to play basketball and football against Butte High in the '80s.
Tuesday, he was in Butte for far different reasons, but a competitive edge remained.
McLing is one of about 170 scientists, students and others attending the U.S. Department of Energy National Lab Days conference at Montana Tech.
McLing is energy water lead at the Idaho National Laboratory, the nearest of the 17 national laboratories administered by the U.S. Department of Energy.
Like managers and scientists from 13 of those 17 labs, he was in Butte to check in on research projects here, with an eye toward collaboration, and to prospect for talent. McLing said he was interested both in undergraduates who might be good interns, and graduate and even postdoctoral students who might make their scientific careers at the lab.
Zia Abdullah is a manager at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory — a facility considerably different from the Idaho lab. The NREL, in Golden, Colorado, is the only federal laboratory dedicated to research, development, commercialization, and deployment of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies. The Idaho lab, by contrast, is the nation’s leading center for nuclear energy research and development.
But he cited the same two purposes in attending Lab Day at Montana Tech.
"First, our lab is interested in what universities are doing. The benefits of collaborating with universities on research programs are clear. We like to hear new ideas students and professors are bringing forward.
"And second, we are interested in what work students are doing, because we want to employ them."
"Many of the labs have several representatives here," said Beverly Hartline, Montana Tech's graduate-school dean. "Many are in Montana for the first time. So we are sharing our beautiful state with them and they are enjoying their time in Butte.
"Though some are getting nervous about the weather warning."
Hartline added that the lab representatives "have been sharing a wealth of exciting opportunities, such as ... collaborations, research partnerships, and access to powerful scientific user facilities, plus internships for students."
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McLing said internships are mutually beneficial.
"For us, we get to see the students in a laboratory setting. Our best employees are often former interns we identified early on as being a good fit."
McLing says he has funded "24 or 25" master's or doctoral students, some from Montana, in his role at INL.
His ideal recruiting "catch" at this conference?
"I need either a great geologist with strong computational skills, or a fantastic computer science expert with a great grounding in geology or other life science," he said. "Like everyone, we are using big data, but as we interpret it we need scientists who know that all data is not created equal — that natural systems include variability."
He added that "Montana Tech is intriguing because few places still offer geological engineering. One project I'm working on now is large-scale energy storage, and that applied geosciences knowledge is useful."
McLing said the national laboratories' relationships with universities are vital.
"The national laboratories can form the spine of our research, but the rest of the body lies in our relationships with institutions," he said.
"The energy level of the networking between the visiting lab researchers and the faculty, students and Montana industry representatives here is amazing. The meeting is setting the stage for great followup from both sides, leading to closer relationships between Montanans and the labs, and stronger benefits to Montana."
All of that is true. But for McLing, his trip to Butte represents more than that.
He went to Idaho State for his bachelor's and master's degrees, and to the University of Idaho for his doctorate. But Montana, clearly, has stayed with him.
"I'll be coming back out to hunt in eastern Montana later," he said. "I just love coming home."