Ron Phaneuf has watched Taylor Wilson’s story unfold from a physics lab to the White House and beyond
RENO, Nev. – When University of Nevada, Reno Foundation Professor Ron Phaneuf first met Taylor Wilson in 2008, he immediately knew the then 13-year-old Davidson Academy student was special.
“He started talking about nuclear physics,” said Phaneuf, a foundation professor of physics. “I’ve talked to a lot of kids who are excited about science, but I could tell in Taylor’s case it was very different. Even then he had a solid, fundamental understanding of the science.”
On that first day, as Taylor and his father Kenneth toured Phaneuf’s physics lab, Taylor talked about his goal to build a fusor to create nuclear fusion. He had already begun to accumulate materials in the family’s garage for the project.
Fortunately for Taylor, he had picked the right lab and found a researcher with the right expertise. Phaneuf is a recognized leader in the field of experimental atomic and molecular physics, has led research collaborations with physicists around the globe and has received numerous awards recognizing the quality and breadth of his work. He came to the University in 1992 from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, where he was research program manager and worked in the fusion program.
Phaneuf was recruited by the University to help augment a strong physics teaching program by enhancing the physics research program. He served as physics department chair for many years and led development of the University’s Nevada Terawatt Facility, which houses the Z-pinch high-energy density device, the highest-power electrical device operated by any university in the United States.
Soon after his initial tour with Kenneth and Taylor, Phaneuf met with them again and offered to have Taylor work in a corner of his lab.
“I saw a sigh of relief,” Phaneuf said of Kenneth’s reaction. “It’s best to have this project in a lab, not in a garage.”
By the time he was 14, Taylor achieved his goal, becoming the youngest person to build a Farnsworth fusor and successfully achieve fusion. He didn’t stop there.
In 2011, Taylor was a top finisher at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair where he received one of the three Intel Foundation Young Scientist Awards. In February 2012, the 17-year-old was invited to participate in a science fair at the White House where he presented his project personally to President Barack Obama. A February feature in Popular Science magazine prompted more attention. CBS Evening News came to the University campus in March to visit with Taylor. He is currently preparing for the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair May 13-18 in Pittsburgh, where he has qualified to present an innovation in the realm of medicine.
Perhaps the ultimate recognition of Taylor’s impact was his appearance at TED, a nonprofit initiative devoted to spreading ideas and known for the online TED Talks that have attracted millions of viewers worldwide. Taylor was invited to attend the TED2012 conference in March. Once there, TED organizers invited him to address the audience, which included celebrity-status innovators, business leaders and journalists. While other presenters may have had weeks or months to prepare, Taylor took the TED stage with only a day’s notice. His presentation earned a standing ovation.
As Phaneuf said, “Taylor’s excitement is contagious.”
Phaneuf, who chairs the University’s Radiation Safety Committee, encourages a laboratory experience that accommodates the interests of students while remaining meticulous about safety. He required Taylor to complete the University’s laboratory and radiation safety training classes. Taylor’s work is reported to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission and his fusor is registered with the State of Nevada.
Phaneuf also teaches Taylor and other students the scientific method, imparting “how one does science” from the role and importance of recordkeeping to how to interact with colleagues in the scientific community.
“The satisfaction of being a teacher is to see students get excited,” said Phaneuf, who plans to retire in June 2012.
Taylor graduates from the Davidson Academy in May 2012 and is exploring his post-high-school options.
Opened in 2006 by Bob and Jan Davidson, the Davidson Academy of Nevada is a free public school for profoundly gifted middle and high school students, and is the only such school based on a university campus. The University’s Davidson Math and Science Center is named in acknowledgement of the Davidson’s financial gift toward its construction.
Read more about Phaneuf and Taylor here.
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Nevada’s land-grant university founded in 1874, the University of Nevada, Reno has an enrollment of 18,000 students and is ranked in the top tier of the nation’s best universities. Part of the Nevada System of Higher Education, the University has the system’s largest research program and is home to the state’s medical school. With outreach and education programs in all Nevada counties and with one of the nation’s largest study-abroad consortiums, the University extends across the state and around the world. For more information, visit www.unr.edu.
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