Mechanical engineering recent graduate, Lindsay Walter B.S.’18, is a recipient of a prestigious competitive fellowship from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP). She is advised by mechanical engineering associate professor Mathieu Francoeur, and a member of the Radiative Energy Transfer Lab. The GRFP program recruits high-potential, early-career scientists and engineers and supports their graduate research training in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Launched in 1952 shortly after Congress established NSF, GRFP represents the nation’s oldest continuous investment in the U.S. STEM workforce. GRFP provides three years of financial support within a five-year fellowship period. That support is for graduate study that leads to a research-based master’s or doctoral degree in a STEM field.

“This fellowship is going to change my life,” said Walter. Her research questions how we can best control radiation with nanostructures. Solar is a strong competitor in the race to meet the world’s growing demands for clean, renewable energy. While most research has been dedicated to silicon-based photovoltaics (PVs – method for generating electric power from light by using solar cells), there has recently been a trend to develop solar Thermophotovoltaic (TPV – direct energy conversion process from heat to electricity via infrared photons).

Walter explains, “Currently my goal is to design, fabricate, and characterize a solar Thermophotovoltaic emitter through formal optimization of spectral and angular control of radiation. My inspiration for solving this problem comes from looking to biology and nanostructures in the natural world, as I believe that we have much to learn from the collective life force propelling evolution. By tackling this problem, I hope to come to a solution that may be applied to solar energy harvesting.”

“My path to starting a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering has definitely been the road less traveled,” said Walter. “I already have my bachelors in psychology, masters in elementary education, and spent time teaching 5th and 6th grade before changing career paths to pursue engineering. Figuring out what on earth I wanted to do with my life has definitely taken some time, but I can heartily say that I am now on the right path and doing the work that I was meant to do.”

From Florida, Walter says, “I was surrounded by tangles of vegetation, lizards, mosquitoes, creepy crawly things, and air so humid you could cut it with a knife. My childhood of scampering barefoot over palm fronds, playing in the muck of slow-moving rivers, gazing out at the shimmer of an ocean sunrise, has propelled me to protect our earth and make a positive contribution to society. I hope to use my education in mechanical engineering to contribute to the green energy revolution and leave the planet healthier and stronger than its current state.”

“I feel that radiation is one of the most hauntingly beautiful phenomenon I have every encountered. When we look at radiative energy transfer on the smallest scales, our concept of the natural world, and of physics itself, must be re-evaluated and transformed into something that more closely resembles philosophy. Around every corner, there are yet more mysteries, and we get to experience that breathless exhilaration of tightrope walking on the cusp of human understanding. My fascination with small-scale energy transfer led me to Dr. Francoeur’s Radiative Energy Transfer lab, where I will begin my research this fall. The fact that I will be getting paid to do what I love—to continue learning and do research—still blows my mind!”

After earning her Ph.D., Walter plans to continue working to develop solar energy technologies by staying in academia and sharing her excitement for math, physics, and all things radiation with future students.