Four Graduate Students Receive PEI Walbridge Fund Awards

Holly Welles ・ High Meadows Environmental Institute

Walbridge Fund Award

Four graduate students were selected to receive the Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI) Walbridge Fund Graduate Award in support of their dissertation research at Princeton. This year’s recipients include: Michael Campanell, Paul Elsen, Molly Schumer, and Travis Shaw. Their research addresses important issues in fusion energy, utilization of greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) as a feedstock in fuel production, and impacts of climate change on bird and fish populations and biodiversity.

Initiated in 2009, the PEI Walbridge Fund has provided support to Princeton graduate students pursuing innovative projects in the fields of energy technology, carbon policy, and climate science. The students will use the grants to support their research including fieldwork support, travel, conference participation, the purchase of equipment, and costs associated with data analysis and facility use.

Michael Campanell

Michael Campanell When a plasma contacts a wall, a potential barrier forms to balance the flux of charged particles and make the net wall current zero. Electron emission modifies the balance. If the emission is strong enough, the barrier can change sign. One consequence of this is ions become trapped in the plasma and no longer reach the walls. Diagram: Michael Campanell

Campanell’s research topic is “Simulation of Plasma-Surface Interaction with Secondary Emission in a Grazing Magnetic Field for Fusion Energy Applications.” Working on his dissertation in the Department of Plasma Physics, Campanell wants to help advance the understanding of plasma-surface interaction (PSI) which he says is essential for optimizing machine designs necessary for creating a fusion reactor. “Bombardment of the machine’s walls by particles drains energy from the plasma, damages the wall by heating and erosion, and sputters contaminating wall material atoms into the plasma. Understanding the PSI is essential for optimizing machine design to limit these degrading effects,” said Campanell.

Campanell’s interest in magnetic fusion stems from the potential humanitarian and environmental benefits. He said, “Fusion would be a safe form of nuclear energy with a virtually unlimited supply of fuel from deuterium in seawater.” He plans to use the Walbridge funds to purchase computer equipment for his simulation work.

Paul Elsen

Paul Elsen Weather logger recording temperature, humidity, and precipitation in the alpine zone of Great Himalayan National Park, India. Elsen is coupling fine-scale weather data with bird surveys along several altitudinal gradients in the Himalayas to develop and test a series of climate-based species distribution models. Photo: Paul Elsen

Through his dissertation research in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Elsen is working to enhance the ability to predict species responses to climate change by incorporating competition and habitat into climate-based species distribution models. Focusing on bird communities in the Himalayas, a biodiversity hotspot potentially threatened by changes in climate, he will develop and validate models using primary field data from two localities differing in climate, habitat, and species richness.

“Understanding how species will respond to climate change is a critical challenge as we try to allocate conservation investments, design protected areas, and maintain vital ecosystem services such as pollination and food provisioning,” said Elsen. “Theoretical models can be used to predict likely species distribution changes under different climate scenarios, but with an intrinsic margin of error due to incomplete knowledge of the relationships between climatic variables and species abundance and diversity.” Elsen hopes his research will help identify parameters that should be included when developing predictive climate-based species distribution models in order to improve their accuracy.

The Walbridge funds will help support his travel expenses to India, salary costs for porters and local assistants, and purchase of equipment.

Read more about Paul’s work: How Temperature Guides Where Species Live and Where They’ll Go

Molly Schumer

Molly Schumer Image of the two species that Schumer is studying and some of their hybrid offspring. Malinche (top left) is the endangered highland species. Photo courtesy of Molly Schumer

Schumer, a doctoral student in ecology and evolutionary biology, is conducting her research in Mexico investigating the role of hybridization, habitat disruption, and climate change in the survival of the freshwater fish Xiphophorus malanche, also known as Swordtail.

“The earth’s biodiversity is threatened by human activity and climate change. Species that are already in decline because of these factors can be further endangered by biological threats, such as competition or hybridization. Xiphophorus malinche are particularly vulnerable because they inhabit freshwater streams and hybridize readily with another species,” said Schumer. By collecting data on environmental factors, human disturbance, and genetic diversity, she hopes to determine which factors correlate with risk of hybridization and to suggest strategies for the conservation of Xiphorphorus malinche.

Schumer will use the Walbridge funds to cover two trips to the field and expenses related to collecting genetic data and equipment procurement.

Travis Shaw

Travis Shaw Graphic depicting of Shaw’s research. Diagram: Travis Shaw

The proposed dissertation research by Shaw aims to develop a sonoelectrochemical method for the reduction of carbon dioxide (CO2) at copper cathodes to multi-carbon products with high yield and efficiency.

“The efficient utilization of CO2 as a feedstock for the production of fuels remains an unsolved challenge in fundamental energy research. Electrocatalytic conversion of CO2 is an appealing solution as it can be coupled directly to a solar energy source, consequently making the reduction of CO2 a carbon neutral process,” said Shaw who is pursuing his doctoral degree in chemistry. He believes the results from this study will have a broad scientific impact because it is a completely unexamined area that represents a promising approach for utilizing CO2 as a direct precursor to fuels.

Support received from the Walbridge Fund will be used to help procure an ultrasonic processor needed for his research.