Lauren Garrison is soft-spoken, yet outgoing and a good listener to boot. She is equally comfortable chatting with kids in a grade-school classroom or with elite scientists at an international conference. A trained dancer, she is a crowd leader and a comfortable performer. In life, she seeks opportunities, rather than waiting for them to come to her, and she is humble and a little awestruck when she reflects on the honors she’s already received.
A PhD student under Grainger Professor of Nuclear Engineering Jerry Kulcinski, Garrison is a rising star in the fusion world.
She grew up in Charleston, Illinois, a child of science-minded parents. Garrison’s mom teaches botany, while her dad is a microbiologist who applies his knowledge to the family farming operation. Garrison earned her undergraduate degree from the Department of Nuclear, Plasma and Radiological Engineering at the University of Illinois, where plasma processing and materials courses piqued her interest. “I like learning,” she says. “After undergrad, I hardly even considered getting a job. I knew I wanted to go on and get a PhD. I knew I wanted to do research.”
Late in her undergraduate career, Garrison attended an American Nuclear Society meeting in Albuquerque, where she listened to several talks, including one by Kulcinski’s student Ross Radel (BSNE ‘03, MSNEEP ‘04, PhDNEEP ‘07). “I was impressed by the idea he was presenting,” she says. “I felt like I could fit in.”
When she began seeking graduate programs, Garrison applied only to Wisconsin.
Kulcinski invited her to be part of his group, in which she studies why the harsh conditions of a fusion reactor damage tungsten, a material under consideration for the diverter, the area of the reactor that funnels out fusion byproducts. Garrison, who also earned a master’s degree in nuclear engineering and engineering physics from UW-Madison in 2010, has authored 15 publications, including three on which she is one of the lead authors.
During her academic career at UW-Madison, she has received the Morgridge Distinguished Graduate Fellowship from UW-Madison; a three-year, $50,000 per year U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science Graduate Fellowship (an opportunity she calls a highlight of her grad student career); and a best-paper award at the 2012 American Nuclear Society Technology of Fusion Energy conference.
She participated in the Rising Stars in Nuclear Science and Engineering Symposium at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in March 2013 and she will present the invited talk, “Effects of helium irradiation on single-crystal tungsten,” at the 14th International Conference on Plasma-Facing Materials and Components for Fusion Applications in Jülich, Germany, in May 2013.
In 2012, Garrison also was invited to take part in the 62nd-annual Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Germany in July 2012. There, she rubbed elbows with Nobel laureates such as Italian particle physicist Carlo Rubbia and theoretical physicist Walter Kohn. “I was a little nervous beforehand—almost star- struck—meeting these celebrities of the scientific community,” she says. “But they were personable, just regular people.”
During the event, Garrison, two other students, and laureates Mario Molina and Robert Laughlin also took part in The Energy Endgame, a videotaped debate about energy for the Nature Publishing Group YouTube channel. “Just to say that you’ve debated with a Nobel Laureate—that’s incredible—and to think that you’d have a different opinion than them,” she says. “And I found out I did.”
Even as she receives increasingly more opportunities to interact with some of the world’s elite scientists, Garrison emphasizes the importance of explaining even the most advanced research in interesting and understandable ways. “There’s no need to make it more imposing,” she says.
In fact, she says, sharing her research and exchanging ideas with her colleagues is an energizing—rather than a draining—experience. “I really like meeting people and having interesting conversations,” says Garrison. “Conferences are a way to remind yourself why you’re doing this, and also of the bigger picture.”
She aims to graduate with her PhD in summer 2013. After that, the sky’s the limit. “There are so many choices,” she says. “I want to find a research problem that has the potential to make an impact, and that I can contribute to with my skills and knowledge.”