When I became the chair of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Engineering Physics just over a year ago, I never could have expected the year that would follow, one marked by a lingering global pandemic and urgent calls to address systemic racism. In 20 years as a faculty member, I have never seen our campus respond so promptly and with such purpose as I have to these two issues. As much as these topics have dominated so many stories since this spring, there are many other things to share about the department.
At the top of that list are three new faculty members who have started in the last year. Professor Kumar Sridharan has been a research leader in our department for two decades and hiring him as a full professor already has made it easier for both our undergraduate and graduate students to benefit from his internationally recognized expertise in the classroom, in research and through expanded opportunities to mentor students. Assistant Professor Stephanie Diem (BSNE ’03) has returned to her alma mater, having collected experiences at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the DIII-D National Fusion Facility, to lead innovative new upgrades in hardware and operational regimes for Pegasus as it expands to its new mission. Finally, Assistant Professor Ben Lindley has joined from the United Kingdom, where he worked in the commercial sector. He will leverage his expertise and experience in reactor physics methods into support for an array of advanced reactor concepts.
With these new additions, and the recent retirements of Professors Robert Witt and Jake Blanchard, we have the youngest faculty in the College of Engineering and are poised for a growing portfolio of research successes. Early signs of those successes came in a few shapes this year. Assistant Professor Benedikt Geiger received a Department of Energy Early Career Award to study the transport of impurities in stellarators, expanding UW-Madison’s expertise in stellarator physics. And Assistant Professors Yongfeng Zhang and Ben Lindley were successful in their first attempts to secure funding from the DOE’s Nuclear Energy University Program (NEUP) R&D program, the primary funding opportunity for the nuclear engineering community. Zhang will be using computational approaches to understand the irradiation behavior of TRISO fuel, and Lindley will study the design of integrated nuclear and solar energy systems for the generation of both electricity and potable water.
Some may be surprised to learn how much biology plays a role in our research portfolio. Professor Rod Lakes has a longstanding interest in the behavior of hierarchical biological materials, and Professor Wendy Crone has been collaborating with cardiac stem cell researchers by studying, developing and providing substrate materials with mechanical properties that ensure these cells develop successfully. But the newest addition is Harvey D. Spangler Assistant Professor Jacob Notbohm’s lab, where he and his students study how the stresses and strains imposed on or by individual cells and networks of cellular material affect the growth and formation of those cells and those around them. Among other things, this research can help us understand the way that some diseases grow and spread, or how tissues grow to heal wounds. The Society for Experimental Mechanics has recognized Notbohm for his outstanding work, selecting him for the society’s highly selective Springer/Nature Young Investigator Lecture.
We hope that all of you and your family are staying well during these challenging times. As our department works to support our campus efforts to continue providing a world-class education during this pandemic, we are renewing our commitment making the department a more inclusive and welcoming environment for everyone. We look forward to sharing examples of these with you in the coming months along as we continue our excellence in research and education.
Stay well, be kind to each other, and On, Wisconsin!
Engineering Physics Department Chair and Grainger Professor of Nuclear Engineering