Where Are They Now? Meet Professor Brian Nelson

Standing by Our Fusion Z-pinch Experiment (FuZE)

What year did you graduate Prairie High School?
1978 (our 40th class reunion will be in June 2018!)

What is your current position and place of employment?
I am a Research Professor in the Electrical Engineering Department at the University of Washington in Seattle.

What are your job responsibilities?
As a Research Professor, I do not have to teach classes, but I daily engage with undergraduate and graduate students, as well as fellow scientists, in fusion energy research projects.  Fusion energy powers the stars by combining smaller nuclei into larger nuclei, giving off tremendous amounts of energy.  Fusion fuels on Earth can be obtained from water (extracting deuterium or “heavy hydrogen”), and from lithium (as found in batteries).  There are enough fusion fuels available for many billions of years of clean energy production.  The fuel is very inexpensive, as we are “burning” water (deuterium) and dirt (lithium), so the fuel prices are literally “dirt (and water) cheap”.  The difficulty is getting the fuels to high enough temperatures (100 million degrees) and stably confining the ionized gasses (plasma) for a sufficient period of time.  Achieving controlled fusion energy on Earth might be one of the most difficult tasks mankind has attempted, but I’m optimistic we will achieve this goal.

Describe your career path since graduating from Prairie High School.
After graduating from PHS, I went to the University of Iowa for my undergraduate Electrical Engineering degree, then to the University of Wisconsin-Madison for my graduate degree in Nuclear Engineering and Engineering Physics.  Straight from UW-Madison, I went to the University of Washington.  Basically I started going to school in 1966 and haven’t left yet.

What advice would you give to today’s high school graduates? 
Follow your passion(s); do not be afraid to work hard; learn from your mistakes (and be sure to try hard enough to make mistakes); and enjoy the fruits of your successes (especially the small ones).

Any additional information you would like to offer?
I have fond memories of my time at Prairie, including making many life-long friends.  I learned a lot from the Mathematics teacher Mr. “Fred” Fearing, the Physics/Chemistry teacher Mr. Rieniets, and the rest of the PHS faculty and staff.  Plus we were pretty stout at football and wrestling.