Energy research at UNL should double within three to five years with the Nebraska Center for Energy Sciences Research as a catalyst.
That's the vision of the center's new director, Mike Nastasi. An accomplished materials scientist, Nastasi joined UNL in January from Los Alamos National Laboratory where he directed the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Frontier Research Center for Materials at Irradiation and Mechanical Extremes.
Nastasi sees great potential for NCESR and UNL.
A combination of factors puts UNL in prime position to expand the breadth and impact of its energy research, Nastasi said. These include the center’s early successes, a strong partnership with Nebraska Public Power District, Chancellor Harvey Perlman’s plan to increase enrollment and research, and plans for Nebraska Innovation Campus.
These pluses and the chance to play a role in improving the energy outlook for Nebraska and the nation drew Nastasi to Nebraska.
"I’m impressed with the positive and upbeat outlook at UNL," he said. "Things are coming together. This is a bright spot in the middle of the country."
Nebraska Innovation Campus also will expand connections between the university, the state and the nation, he said.
"I see energy playing a major role in what's happening at Innovation Campus," he said. Energy research will help attract businesses to the campus.
"Faculty are great at developing intellectual property, and Innovation Campus is a way to get that intellectual property out to the world. It’s very timely," Nastasi said.
Personally, Nastasi said he is at a point in his scientific career where he wants to give back. His expertise is in fundamental research that focuses on developing highly radiation-tolerant materials. "Most of what I do has impact 20 years off. The opportunity to have a broader impact is very appealing."
UNL can help tackle both applied and more basic problems to improve the energy outlook for Nebraska and beyond, Nastasi said.
"The center can play an even bigger role in solving energy problems for Nebraska and also for the nation," he said. "Nebraska will benefit from that expanded national role."
Nastasi said he's taken the reins of a successful center that has made excellent strides during its first five years. "The partnership with NPPD is a strength, and there has been an incredible return on investment from seed grants."
He aims to further strengthen the center by increasing the focus on research areas with the best potential for lucrative federal funding. Attracting more funding will enable UNL to expand the scope and impact of its energy research.
Nastasi has a lengthy "to do" list for his first year as director, including:
Discussing a growth strategy for NCESR at a series of meetings with stakeholders, including NPPD, faculty who have received NCESR seed grants, the center’s executive committee and deans of relevant colleges.
Bringing to campus experts who can advise the faculty and administrators on the best bets for future major research initiatives at federal agencies.
Developing a strategic plan for UNL energy research based on those stakeholder meetings and what’s learned from experts regarding funding.
Revising the NCESR seed grant program based on the strategic plan to target research with the highest potential for significant external funding.
Working with UNL administrators and NPPD to strategically hire new faculty who can advance the university’s energy-related research and education programs.
Holding a retreat to discuss these plans and produce a revised white paper outlining the future of UNL energy sciences programs through 2017.
Nastasi also is a professor of mechanical and materials engineering and holds the Elmer Koch Professorship. He'll continue his research on developing materials for extreme radiation environments. UNL will be a university affiliate of the Energy Frontier Research Center at Los Alamos National Laboratory, along with the Massachusetts Insitute of Technology, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Carnegie Mellon University.
One of Nastasi's first jobs at UNL is finding a UNL graduate student to work at Los Alamos National Laboratory to support his research on materials for advanced nuclear reactor designs.