Being named this year’s Macebearer ranks at the top of Lee Riedinger’s long list of honors and accomplishments in a career that, as he puts it, was born out of a series of random events.
Like many kids growing up in the 1950s, Riedinger was wowed by Sputnik and thought he might enjoy being a scientist. That’s why – even though he attended a humanities-based high school and lacked any substantial background in science – Riedinger didn’t think twice when a priest from Thomas More College in northern Kentucky called after high school graduation and asked, "Why don’t you major in physics?"
"I said, ‘Okay.’ It seemed as good a choice as any other major," says Riedinger. When he arrived at Vanderbilt for graduate school, it was another random event that dictated his specialty, nuclear physics.
"When you’re determining your specialty in graduate school, it can come down to who has room for you in their class," says Riedinger. "There was a plethora of kids interested in nuclear physics, and there was a professor who had one space left, but he said he’d have to send me to Oak Ridge National Laboratory." Riedinger says it was a blessing in disguise and one that has had a positive impact on his career.
Riedinger began teaching at UT in 1971. He moved to an administrative role in 1988 to direct the UT Science Alliance Center of Excellence. He also served as the Associate Vice Chancellor for Research and the first chair of the Tennessee Science Technology Council. When UT sent Riedinger back to ORNL in 2000 to serve as the lab’s Deputy Director for Science and Technology, he realized he had a unique opportunity to encourage the relationship between the university and the research facility. In 2004 Riedinger was named Associate Laboratory Director for University Partnerships, a role in which he extended the capabilities of the laboratory through joint programs at UT and other leading universities.
Riedinger has reached out to area high school science students by creating research opportunities for them at the lab and in UT’s physics department. Each semester, 20 to 30 students from Farragut High School conduct research at UT and ORNL.
"I had no science background in high school, but I made it fine. Kids can still do well. Children spend too much time worrying about what they want to do with their careers."
The important thing, Riedinger says, is exposing kids to research. "Whether it’s physics, history, literature -it doesn’t matter. If they get turned on to research, they’ll be a step ahead of their peers when deciding what type of school to attend and what to study."
Following his passion for education, Riedinger returned to teaching last fall after a 13-year stretch of administrative duties. He served most recently as interim vice chancellor for research during the search for Brad Fenwick, who was named to the permanent post.
"At this point I’m very glad to be teaching again," he says.
For Riedinger, the move back to the classroom allows more time to pursue some of his other passions: attending UT football and men’s and women’s basketball games (he has season tickets for all three), and spending time with his family.
Lee Riedinger lives in Farragut with his wife Tina, a former UT astronomy professor. While they enjoy ski trips with their family, one of Riedinger’s greatest joys is his annual "granddad camp," when he hosts his four grandchildren for two weeks of fun each summer.