Kirkegaard Earns Homeland Security Fellowship

For demonstrating exceptional promise in the study of nuclear forensics, Marie Kirkegaard ’15 has received the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Nuclear Forensics Graduate Fellowship. The award will support her PhD work in nuclear science at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, a program associated with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Kirkegaard is the only undergraduate in the country this year to receive the generous fellowship, which includes up to five years of support (tuition, fees and monthly stipend) and two 10-week practicums at a national lab, federal agency or other institution. The program provides support to graduate students pursuing doctoral degrees in nuclear, geochemical and other disciplines directly related to nuclear forensics, in order to develop the next generation of highly qualified scientists to meet U.S. government needs for nuclear forensics expertise and to build a viable student career path in nuclear forensics.

Under the advisement of chemistry Professor Bob Cave, Kirkegaard is completing an individual program of studies (IPS) in chemistry and physics that she designed because of her interest in and passion for nuclear chemistry and physics. She arranged to conduct her senior research thesis at the Nuclear Reactor Facility at the University of California, Irvine, with Harvey Mudd alumnus and chemistry Professor A.J. Shaka ’80. There, she worked on design and testing of a delayed neutron detector as an alternative to current Helium 3 detectors.

“The prototype they developed shows great promise and will doubtless be further explored,” says Cave. “That an undergraduate could pursue work of this quality and accomplish so much is a testimony both to Marie’s background and extraordinary commitment.”

Kirkegaard was one of only 12 students nationally chosen to attend the American Chemical Society-sponsored Nuclear Chemistry Summer School in San Jose during summer 2013 and subsequently received the Outstanding Student Award for that school at the ACS meeting in March 2014. She further pursued her interest in nuclear science during summer 2014 by conducting summer research at the Institute of Nuclear Theory at the University of Washington with physics Professor Aurel Bulgac.

On campus, Kirkegaard is active in both academics and community affairs. She has been an Academic Excellence facilitator in chemistry since 2013. She recently completed a term as co-chair of the Dormitory Affairs Committee and is the student representative for the Harvey Mudd College Board of Trustees’ Physical Plant and Campus Planning Committee.

The Harvey Mudd College Department of Chemistry is committed to a challenging curriculum and extensive hands-on experience with modern instrumentation and computation, and provides a broad-based education with an emphasis on problem-solving skills. The department’s robust research program—more than 80 percent of chemistry majors conduct research prior to their senior year—gives students a leading role in solving problems and independence in guiding the direction of the project.