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A Winning Couple

The D'Ursos have garnered numerous awards, including Wigner Fellowships.

Vicky and Brian D'Urso

Brian and Vicky D'Urso are the first married couple to come to ORNL as Wigner Fellows. Neither was recruited by the Laboratory. As simple as it sounds, the graduates of the California Institute of Technology found information about ORNL and the Wigner Fellowship program on the Internet.

As a doctoral student in atomic physics at Harvard University, Brian received the Hertz Foundation Fellowship for exceptional creativity and outstanding potential in research.

"The Hertz Foundation encouraged us to look at the Department of Energy's national labs as a place to go after graduate school," Brian says. "The Hertz Foundation places a value on giving back to the nation, so working at a national lab would fulfill that duty," says Vicky, who has a Ph.D. degree in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "I learned that economists do research at ORNL, so there was an opportunity for me to come to Tennessee."

Brian says he knew little about ORNL until he read about the Laboratory online. The couple had interviewed at Caltech and looked at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, but the D'Ursos decided to give Oak Ridge a chance. "Once we came here and looked at ORNL and the area and met everybody, we fell in love with the place. It's less congested here, and we love our house in Clinton."

Brian enjoys gardening. Vicky is a potter. Her pots are displayed in their home and in their ORNL offices and are sold at Appalachian Arts in Clinton, where she sometimes teaches pottery.

"I make functional stoneware out of the elements," Vicky says. "Pottery is a great way to express my artistic side. My research in economics is analytical, and my pottery provides a final product that's tangible."

Magic Material

At ORNL, Brian has made something functional—out of the elements, presumably. But he cannot discuss his research other than to say his work involves an exciting nanostructured material that may have national security applications. He hopes to describe this "magic" material in a seminal paper in either Nature or Science magazine later this year.

Since June 2003, Brian has worked as a Wigner Fellow with the Advanced Lasers, Optics, and Diagnostics Technology Group, led by Steve McNeany.
 


Brian D'Urso
Brian D'Urso enjoys gardening at home.
 

The group is in ORNL's Engineering Science and Technology Division, which plans to hire Brian as a staff member when his Wigner Fellowship expires in June 2005.

A native of Portsmouth, Rhode Island, and the son of an electrical engineer, Brian remembers "tinkering with his grandfather's junk machines" as a child. He recalls taking apart a clock and putting it back together in working order.

One of Brian's favorite projects at Caltech was nanofabrication of photonic crystal structures after he modeled them on a computer. He learned a couple of techniques for etching holes 500 nanometers apart in a specific pattern on a thin slab of a semi-conducting, light-emitting material. When laser light was shone on the crystal structure, light was generated in the slab and then reflected, turning the slab into a two-dimensional photonic bandgap crystal mirror that might be made into an optical switch. For this research, Brian received the Apker Award of the American Physical Society in 1998 for undergraduate achievement in physics.

At Caltech Brian met Victoria Tanusheva, a native of Bulgaria who moved with her family to California when she was 15 so that her father, an applied mathematician, and mother, a chemist and librarian, could find a better life. Vicky and her family lived in Northridge, California, and experienced the January 17, 1994, earthquake. "There were stacks of papers and books under our refrigerator, and our kitchen was two feet deep in dishes and broken eggs," she recalls. "But nobody got hurt."

Vicky and Brian share a love for physics. She majored in math but took a lot of physics courses to prepare for a career. "Where I grew up, everyone worked and there were no stay-at-home moms," she says. For two years Vicky worked for a professor of physics doing research on how snowflakes grow.

"We put water vapor in a cloud chamber that slowly moved down and cooled forming snowflakes, which we then photographed and studied," Vicky says. "We wrote a paper published in Physical Review Letters A about how the dendrites—the jagged ends of snowflakes—grow and develop. We confirmed that no two snowflakes are alike, but they can be made to be alike if the temperature profile is the same for each as they swirl in the air.

"The Caltech people concluded my research was original and awarded me the Richard Feynman Prize in Theoretical Physics. It was a great honor."

After graduating from Caltech, Brian and Vicky got married. They immediately headed for graduate school in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

For his Ph.D. thesis at Harvard, Brian moved from Caltech's curiosity-driven research to a more focused project of measuring precisely the magnetic moment of a single electron trapped in an extreme vacuum better than 1016 Torr. The electron was cooled to a temperature of about 50 milliKelvin.

"We were able to trap the electron there for about six months," Brian says. He developed cooling and detection techniques in order to measure its "g value." Out of Brian's thesis came two papers for Physical Review Letters.

House on a Hill

For her doctoral thesis at MIT, Vicky studied how use of the Internet's search capability can affect a person's final selection of a house or apartment.

"I found that people using the Internet take longer to find the house or apartment they want," she says. "You become pickier because you have so much more information about what's available, so you drive around to look at all of the choices. You become more educated about what you want."

Did Vicky and Brian find their house in Clinton using the Internet? "We did look on the Internet at a few houses," she says.


Vicky D'Urso
Vicky D'Urso.
 

 
"Then our real estate agent showed us a house on a hill that we fell in love with and decided to buy. Later we found it again on the Internet and realized it was the house we had rejected right away because the picture looked so terrible."

Before coming to ORNL in 2003 as a Wigner Fellow in a group led by Amy Wolfe in ORNL's Environmental Sciences Division, Vicky completed a postdoctoral research program at the Sloan School of Management. There she worked on an interdisciplinary team investigating the impact of technology and information on organizational performance.

At ORNL Vicky wrote a proposal that received DOE funding. The funded project, for which she is the principal investigator, is a market analysis by researchers at three national labs. She is studying how information presented online about different energy technologies, such as appliances and hybrid vehicles, plays out in the marketplace. She is attempting to determine how consumers respond to this information and how the information affects their purchasing decisions.

Vicky uses computer simulation to develop theories about how people become aware of products and learn more about them from web sites, commercials, and other people. "The missing link is how to get energy-efficient technologies out to the consumer," she says. "For example, one ORNL heat pump would sell better if it were less top heavy and easier to install. An overarching theme in my work is how to make a connection between society and technology."

Another project for which she obtained program development funds from Dave Hill's Energy and Engineering Sciences Directorate is a study of how researchers' creativity is affected by the organization and dynamics of Hill's directorate.

"We've had to define creativity," Vicky says. "Creativity lies in the intersection between originality and success, and measures of success include researchers' awards, publications, and status in professional organizations."

Creativity also lies in the minds of Wigner fellows like Brian and Vicky. Great talent loves company.

 

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