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Fellowship a boost for budding energy researchers

Lauren Garrison with MITEE, a vacuum system equiped with a laser and ion gun to irradiate samples, allowing Garrison to study what happens to material surfaces when exposed to radiation. Photo by Sandy Knisely.
Lauren Garrison with MITEE, a vacuum system equiped with a laser and ion gun to irradiate samples, allowing Garrison to study what happens to material surfaces when exposed to radiation. Photo by Sandy Knisely.

A pair of young fusion researchers will be working with the support of the U.S. Department of Energy as they work on engineering graduate degrees at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Carson Cook and Lauren Garrison were among 150 graduate students tapped this summer for Department of Energy Graduate Fellowships in Science, Mathematics and Engineering, providing them with $50,500 each year for as many as three years to cover tuition, living expenses and research materials and travel.

"This opens up more opportunities," says Garrison, a Charleston, Ill., native who just finished her master's degree in UW-Madison's Department of Engineering Physics. "There's the added benefit of a research allowance, which is support for supplies and traveling to conferences--things that wouldn't be covered by a teaching assistant or research assistant position."

The two UW-Madison students, selected from more than 3,000 applicants, stand out in the shared goal of their research. The Department of Energy selected the first in what it hopes to be an annual class of graduate fellows from across the spectrum of energy-related research, including physics, chemistry, biology, math, engineering, and environmental and computer sciences.

Lauren Garrison holds a molybdenum sample. Photo by Sandy Knisely.
Lauren Garrison holds a molybdenum sample. Photo by Sandy Knisely.

Both Cook and Garrison are working on how to confine the searing hot plasma used in fusion reactors, which would harness large amounts of energy released as atomic nuclei are fused together (rather than split apart as in nuclear fission reactors already in service).

An electrical engineer from Chippewa Falls, Wis., Cook is studying computational plasma physics with Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor David T. Anderson and working with a pair of researchers at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory on software called SIESTA that monitors and controls powerful magnetic fields.

"The SIESTA code I am working on will be used to analyze experimental machines which are looking into aspects of confining the plasma for (the fusion) process, and it will also be used to help model and create new machines and configurations for larger-scale devices into the future," Cook says.

Carson Cook with the Helically Symmetric eXperiment, HSX, where Cook is developing a software to monitor and control powerful magnetic fields. Photo by Sandy Knisely.
Carson Cook with the Helically Symmetric eXperiment, HSX, where Cook is developing a software to monitor and control powerful magnetic fields. Photo by Sandy Knisely.

Garrison, who works in Associate Dean for Research and Grainger Professor of Nuclear Engineering Gerald Kulcinski's lab, tortures small samples of tungsten with heat and radiation in search of the best container for ongoing fusion reactions.

"It's one of the unanswered questions: What material will be used in what is called the 'first wall,' the interface with the plasma?" Garrison says. "There are still many obstacles. We're still trying to understand what processes go on in the tungsten in those conditions."

Both students attended a conference for the first class of graduate fellows at Argonne National Lab this summer.

"They did a great job organizing it," Garrison says. "Even though everyone's research is so much different, it keeps you excited about what you're doing and thinking about how you're contributing to the world even if you're not working on something like a miracle cure."

The Department of Energy Graduate Fellowships are funded in part by $12.5 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Chris Barncard
9/3/2010