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ASU graduate student awarded nuclear science fellowship

Doctoral student selected for prestigious Seaborg Institute program at Los Alamos National Laboratory

Gerson standing in a lab, posing for the photo.

Engineering doctoral candidate Gerson Leonel has been named a Seaborg Institute Fellow. The award provides Leonel access to facilities designed to handle the highly radioactive substances that are the focus of his research. Photo courtesy Gerson Leonel

April 14, 2023

Gerson Leonel, a chemical engineering doctoral candidate at Arizona State University, has been selected as a fellow for the 2023 G. T. Seaborg Institute graduate research program. This prestigious scholarship will support Leonel’s 12-week trip to the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico to advance his studies in nuclear science.

Leonel’s interest in engineering began at a young age when he discovered how individual things can come together for a new purpose, becoming something greater than the sum of their parts. That curiosity propelled him to research the composition and structure of novel materials.

He began his academic career in chemical engineering studying porous materials for nuclear waste management as an undergraduate student researcher for Di Wu, an assistant professor for the Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering at Washington State University. As Leonel prepared for graduate school, Wu recommended that he connect with his own mentor, Alexandra Navrotsky, a Regents Professor in the ASU School of Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, part of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. Navrotsky is also a faculty member in the School of Molecular Sciences and is affiliated with the School of Earth and Space Exploration

Leonel pursued his graduate studies in the Navrotsky Eyring Center for Materials of the Universe, the largest thermodynamics laboratory in the world.

“Working with Navrotsky has helped me be more confident as both a person and scientist,” Leonel said. “I believe that such confidence is necessary, especially when dealing with failure, which is often just an obstacle on the way to success in science.”

Leonel will spend his summer fellowship working with Hongwu Xu, a professor for the School of Molecular Sciences at ASU and senior scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, to study the structure, composition and thermodynamic stability of nuclear substances.

The Seaborg Fellowship aims to cultivate the next generation of researchers in nuclear engineering and is supporting Leonel’s study of a rare class of nuclear substances called actinides, a relatively understudied group of elements due to the extensive security features required to handle radioactive materials. The mysteries behind actinides are what drew Leonel’s ambition and curiosity. He said he enjoys the journey behind science and aspires to become a professor with his own research lab.

“My PhD journey has been filled with uncertainty and numerous challenges,” Leonel said. “Still, I know that I am doing something that I am passionate about, and to me, that is what matters most. Especially if I get to learn from inspiring and innovative people like Navrotsky and Xu.”

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