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Senior Justin Vadas plans to pursue a career in nuclear chemistry after graduating from Earlham. Vadas is the recipient of this year's Brookhaven National Laboratory' Outstanding Student Award.

The Nuclear Option: Senior Set to Make Big Impact in Grad School and Beyond

February 18, 2013

Justin Vadas will graduate in May with a rare combination of scientific skills and experience.

During his undergraduate years at Earlham, Vadas has accumulated four research experiences and one summer intensive program.

He just returned from a semester at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

“I gained a lot of experience in engineering at Oak Ridge,” he says. “I ended up working on magnetic refrigeration technology, which will be better for the environment than the vapor compression gas models we currently use.”

Once he arrived, he was given an existing design.

“I was actually building the first prototype and writing the computer program to run the unit,” says Vadas, who thinks the magnetic refrigeration idea may work best as air conditioning for large buildings. “Air conditioning is one of the biggest expenditures of energy for commercial buildings, and since magnetic refrigeration can be twice as efficient as conventional vapor refrigeration, there is a huge potential to save money and cut down on the use of fossil fuels.”

In addition to the Oak Ridge semester, Vadas has twice researched “Investigating Diagnostic Ultrasound on Cancer Cells” with Assistant Professor of Physics Maria- Teresa Herd, and during the summer of 2011 he completed the University of Rochester REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) “Developing an Instrument that Measures Absolute Quantum Yield of Polymer Thin Films.” During the summer of 2012, Vadas was one of 12 students accepted into Brookhaven National Lab’s six-week intensive summer school in nuclear chemistry.

In April, he will receive Brookhaven’s Outstanding Student Award during the American Chemical Society spring meeting in New Orleans

“All of these opportunities were in vastly different fields, yet the knowledge and experience I have gained from each helps me to perform better in each of the others.

“With my work with Teresa, my nuclear chemistry summer study and engineering study at Oak Ridge, I have been able to find my niche, and I found that I align pretty well with nuclear chemistry, which is essentially looking at the chemical properties of atoms and molecules on a nuclear level, such as how radioactivity interacts with matter. I came to Earlham wanting to study physics with a slight chemistry background, and chemistry just developed into a second major. Nuclear chemistry is a good mix of both fields.”

This interest and his unusual breadth of skills and experience have made him an attractive graduate school candidate.

“The combination of physics, chemistry and engineering definitely puts me on a different tier,” he says. In fact, representatives from Northwestern University and the Fermi National Accelerator Lab have contacted Vadas to make sure he is aware of current research at their schools that straddles the physics and chemistry fields.

“It is a rare scientist that spans the spectrum of skills that support great research,” says Herd, who oversaw Vadas’ work during the two on-campus research experiences where he studied ultrasonic tissue characteristics of benign and malignant cells. “Justin has built several of the components used for the experiments and has optimized and improved the experimental methods. Justin is an exceptional student who has the potential to become a prominent scientist due to his inquisitive mind, high intellect, personal drive and his promising laboratory skills.”

Vadas says he has been fortunate that all of the research experiences have aligned with his interests, but he is anxious to lead a project of his own choosing.

“One goal is that I want to be able to carve out my own research topic, and I hope that will develop during the next two career steps — grad school and a post-doc experience,” he says. “In 10 years I hope to find myself doing research in the field of nuclear chemistry as well as teaching the next generation about the exciting possibilities that will exist then and why it’s cool to study.”

Vadas, who also has served as a teaching assistant and tutor for three years, has applied to grad programs in atomic physics and nuclear chemistry.

“Ideally, I want to research and teach new energy or particle discovery,” he says.

Vadas is also a McNair Scholar, a program that helps low-income, first generation college students and those from under-represented racial and ethnic groups prepare for graduate study. Funded by the U.S. Department of Education, the program offers students special monitoring and requires them to complete a summer research experience.

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