University Honors Program Success Story

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Alum Physicist Looks on the Bright Side of Green Energy

At the end of his sophomore year, Wilson Smith, CAS/BS ’05, still was not sure which subject he should declare as his major. He looked at the courses he had taken so far – three calculus classes, four physics classes, and chemistry – and the answer became clear. He declared an interdisciplinary major in computer science, audio technology, and physics.

This began a journey that would lead to a PhD, post-doctoral research in Paris, and a tenure-track position as an assistant professor at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands where he researches solar energy.

“[As a student], I thought physics was the coolest thing in the world. I still do,” Wilson says. Much like his alma mater, Wilson is committed to sustainable energy. His research is focused on solar fuels. Solar panels, he explains, are limited by daylight, so he is searching for a way to “unlock the power of the sun” to transform solar energy into solar fuels.

Wilson is working on a system that would use the sun’s energy during the day to split water into hydrogen and oxygen; at night, these would combine to create solar fuels. He gives an example of a practical application of solar fuel: attach a device to capture carbon dioxide emissions from a car’s exhaust and convert it into carbohydrate fuel, creating a closed loop and stopping the carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.

Wilson says he came to AU because, “AU had a good mix of sports and academics. Plus, I thought D.C. was a cool place to go to school.” Wilson played rugby all four years and was president and captain of the team his junior and senior years.

The friendships Wilson formed at AU have lasted long past graduation. “I met Lindsey, my best friend and wife, at AU. It’s the best thing that could have happened to me,” he says. He and Lindsey Walker, CAS/BA ’05, just celebrated their 10-year wedding anniversary. The best man at their wedding was also an AU grad.

Wilson credits AU Professor Nate Harshman, chair of the department of physics, for helping him succeed: “Professor Harshman should get every award AU offers. He played a big part in my education. … He motivated, inspired, and influenced me. I’m happy where I am, and I owe a lot of that to Nate.”