Ünlü recognized with President’s Award for excellence in academic integration

March 26, 2024

Editor’s note: A version of this article originally appeared on Penn State News. 

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Kenan Ünlü, professor of nuclear engineering in the College of Engineering, and the director of the Radiation Science and Engineering Center (RSEC), which includes the Breazeale nuclear research reactor, has been awarded the 2024 President’s Award for Excellence in Academic Integration.

The award is given to a full-time faculty member who has exhibited extraordinary achievement in the integration of teaching, research or creative accomplishment and service.

Nominators said Ünlü has fully integrated technical leadership, community service and educational outreach. They said this integration has amplified a transformative influence on research reactors in the U.S. and internationally.

Nominators said he uses his position to improve facilities, the curriculum and the future of research reactors across the nation and beyond.

Ünlü’s expertise lies in the development and applications of neutron irradiation and neutron beam techniques for advancement of scientific knowledge and technological innovation. With over 30 years of experience in research reactor administration, he has consistently demonstrated exemplary leadership in advancing scientific and technological frontiers, nominators said. He conducted many research projects at university research reactors with awards of research funds for development and utilizations of these reactors while fulfilling all the safety and security requirements for Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensed research reactor facilities.

“Many of Professor Ünlü’s accomplishments can be seen in the brick-and-mortar improvements that have been made over the past two decades,” a nominator said. “While these are significant and will provide the physical infrastructure that will support education, research, and service activities into the future, the more significant impacts have been in the development of the junior faculty and staff, the building and fostering of relationships and the development of curricula.”

One accomplishment nominators cited was leading improvements to Penn State’s facilities at a time when many of the nation’s research reactors were being decommissioned. His work at Cornell, before joining Penn State, led to the Department of Energy’s Innovations in Nuclear Infrastructure and Education Program, which laid the groundwork for saving and improving research reactor facilities. At Penn State, he achieved his vision and oversaw a $20 million overhaul to the facilities, expanding research and education efforts.

He is strongly engaged in research and outreach activities with public and private entities. He garnered significant national and international recognition and funds, nominators said. More than 20 industrial and government entities utilize RSEC facilities for radiation services, research and development for every year.

He is currently in the process of installing a small angle neutron scattering (SANS) facility at RSEC. The RSEC will be the only university research reactor facility to have SANS capability in the U.S. The new expanded research efforts with SANS will include collaborative research on soft materials across biology, chemical engineering, medicine, nuclear engineering and other fields, nominators said.

Ünlü also made advances to education. He created the nuclear security master’s program at Penn State, including developing coursework, training personnel and building the physical laboratory with the state-of-the-art detection systems. As the first of its kind in the world, this curriculum will prepare students to become the next generation of technical experts in nuclear and radiological security around the world, nominators said.

“This education of nuclear security experts is essential to the safety and the security of our nation and the world,” a nominator said.

His educational impact extends beyond Penn State. More than 3,000 people visit the RSEC annually, including K-12 students, government officials and elementary and high school teachers. These tours are an opportunity to learn about clean energy via nuclear facilities, nominators said.

“Professor Ünlü’s entire academic career, in my opinion, perfectly embodies the integration of technical leadership, community service and educational outreach in a manner I have honestly not witnessed from another over my career,” a nominator said.


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