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Curiouser and Curiouser, Jim Conklin’s Lifelong Pursuit

jim conklin at palmer station plunge

Jim Conklin took the polar plunge from Palmer Station in Antartica

By Laura Tenpenny.

Arctic and Antarctic swimmer, Air Force veteran, first generation college student, expert in thermodynamics and heat transfer—the many lives of Jim Conklin (PhD/ME ’89) unite in an insatiable interest in the world and how it works.

Curiosity became his guide.

“I’m the first in my extended family to attend college and the only college graduate in my immediate family,” said Conklin. “I had no mentor in engineering, but I did have an innate curiosity about how physics and math can describe real-world performance and help improve that performance.”

This curiosity led to a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from the University of Connecticut and a master’s in nuclear engineering from MIT. He put his education to use in the Air Force at Cape Canaveral as a propulsion engineer helping launch military satellites on the Titan IIIC launch vehicle.

There, he met Carol, a personnel officer and his future wife. They retired from service to East Tennessee where they could enjoy the outdoors and Conklin could appease his love of learning as an engineer at ORNL.

“At ORNL, I worked on many interesting and worthwhile projects using my expertise in thermodynamics and heat transfer, but I particularly enjoyed a dissociating fluid turbomachinery project because of its novelty and challenges,” said Conklin.

This project led to one of two patents, just a couple achievements in Conklin’s impressive career of 36 years at the national laboratory.

“Many of my coworkers who had attended UT were better prepared than I for ORNL’s advanced research,” Conklin said. “I decided to pursue a PhD from UT. The qualifying exam was the hardest and longest of my life, but I was ecstatic when I passed.”

His professional success has led him to give back to his doctoral alma mater. Conklin served eight years as an adjunct professor in MABE and recently established a faculty fellowship as well as planned gifts to support future scholarships and a professorship.

Conklin generosity also extends to UT Veterinary Medical Center. The couple have owned over 20 dogs. Carol spent her non-military career in the pet industry, eventually owning a pet-grooming business.

Apart from caring for their many animals, Conklin and his wife travel regularly, a wanderlust born of his desire to learn.

“It’s awe-inspiring to see how people and animals live in different climates,” said Conklin. “I’ve seen a flock of an estimated 200,000 flamingos in flight over the Ngorogoro crater, swam with sea lions in the Galapagos, and witnessed over 100,000 king penguins on South Georgia Island.”

He has set foot on all seven continents, even completing polar plunges in the Arctic and Antarctic.

“I did it for bragging rights and as a personal challenge, but also to see what the explorers of over 100 years ago endured to explore the unknown,” said Conklin.

He went to the ends of the earth to find answers, and UT is proud to have been part of Conklin’s pursuit of knowledge and his professional success.