Materials science graduate student earns award for outreach efforts

David Kubarek
May 07, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Tom Nigl, doctoral candidate in materials science and engineering (MatSE) at Penn State, was awarded the Intercollege Graduate Student Outreach Achievement Award from the Graduate School for outreach efforts that promote science within society.

Nigl is a member of the executive board of Penn State’s Science Policy Society, a group dedicated to bridging the gap between scientists and the general public while educating students on science policy issues. The society focuses on self-education, legislator engagement and community outreach.

The group hosts events focused on science policy such as workshops, seminars, discussions with elected officials, game nights and other social events. They also host experts to help educate students about science policy and other issues in the field. Speakers have included Gina McCarthy, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, legal experts, and LGBTQ+ scientists who discussed their experiences in the field.

One of the society’s key outreach initiatives is Science on Tap, an event which has hosted Penn State scientists at local restaurants to talk about their research and answer science-related questions.

For his research, Nigl looks at how liquid metals can remove certain elements from waste made from nuclear reactors.

Using electrochemical separation, a process that attracts specific elements based on their physical and chemical properties, his research is aimed at reducing nuclear fuel waste when the uranium is recycled or stored after use. He works under the guidance of Hojong Kim, assistant professor of materials science and engineering, and nuclear engineering. Kim’s research focuses on thermodynamics and electrochemistry and can be applied to energy storage and nuclear energy.

Nigl said he hopes his research helps improves nuclear energy by lessening waste, allowing more free use of the energy source. He said the collaborative approach in Kim’s group and the MatSE department at large enables him to succeed.

“Through my research, I can make an impact on improving such a vital source of low-carbon energy in the grand efforts to combat climate change,” Nigl said. “Nuclear energy has a number of benefits but has some significant drawbacks. My work tackles one of those drawbacks, the generation of waste, by enabling the recycling of nuclear waste and reusing leftover uranium to make even more clean energy.”

Nigl’s career goals include helping to develop next-generation nuclear reactors that minimize waste while offering low-carbon energy, developing energy policies that confront the challenges of climate change and educating the next generation of scientists and engineers.

“My career goal is to make an impact on this world, but I have so many paths I want to take to get there,” Nigl said.

The Intercollege Graduate Student Outreach Achievement Award, established with a donation from alumni Steven E. and Alice R. Linberg and a matching commitment from University Outreach, recognizes outstanding achievements of degree candidates in any of the Intercollege Graduate Degree Programs that relate to bringing scholarship to the community in order to benefit society in some manner.

  • Tom Nigl

    Tom Nigl

    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated May 07, 2020