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The University of Delaware, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

Electrical engineering grad student wins Laird Fellowship

Nicole Kotulak, a doctoral student in the Solar Power Program at the University of Delaware, has been chosen to receive the 2010 Laird Fellowship. The award is aimed at encouraging the recipient to become engaged in a broadening intellectual pursuit that may or may not have direct applications to his or her chosen field of study.

First awarded in 1977 to honor the memory of George W. Laird, a mechanical engineering graduate of UD who died in an accident at the age of 35, the prestigious fellowship is bestowed upon candidates who exhibit character, creativity, imagination, and perseverance, all of which are focal points of the selection process.

Like all previous winners of the Laird, Kotulak plans to be an engineer, and, like most of the others, she has wide-ranging interests that have little to do with the ability to solve equations. She is a classically trained singer and a black-and-white photographer who does things the old-fashioned way -- shooting with 35 mm film and spending hours in a darkroom to produce prints.

Now, with the money from the fellowship, Kotulak will be able to follow both of these passions while also giving a priceless gift to her grandmother. “My Nonna was a singer as well,” she says. “It was her passion, her gift. But it was a gift she gave up for her family.”

The oldest daughter of Sicilian parents, Kotulak's grandmother grew up in Baltimore, singing in various area establishments and training at the Peabody Conservatory. But she was denied the chance to tour the U.S. because she didn't have a chaperone, and she turned down a singing scholarship at La Scala because it would have required her to leave her home and family for five years.

“I want to give her the opportunity to finally walk the halls of LaScala,” Kotulak says, “to feel the music flow through her veins, to relive those perfect moments the way I do when I attend a performance. My plan is for us to vicariously experience her dream together.”

To enable others to share in the experience, Kotulak also plans to record the trip with her camera. “Old-school film and a darkroom have a mystique about them that digital photography cannot touch,” she says. “It's nothing short of magic to take a blank piece of paper, expose it to light, slip it delicately into a tub of solution, and watch figures materialize from the void.”

Kotulak earned a bachelor's degree in physics with a minor in mathematics from the College of Notre Dame of Maryland in May 2009. She credits the small liberal arts school with instilling in her an understanding of how interconnected -- and sometimes mutually misunderstood -- the various disciplines of academia can be. “Interdisciplinary approaches are not only useful in the classroom,” she says, “but they have the potential to revolutionize the workplace as well.”

That philosophy, combined with her growing concern for the depletion of natural resources, brought Kotulak to the University of Delaware as an IGERT Fellow, where she is advised by Prof. Allen Barnett. Her research focuses on high-efficiency photovoltaics.

“I have always been fascinated by the notion of alternative energy,” Kotulak says. “As a developing researcher, I believe it is my duty to educate people about the functionality, importance, and potential of photovoltaics. This requires the ability to speak the language of fellow researchers, policy makers, environmentalists, and the general populace. Through IGERT's interdisciplinary approach to learning and interaction and its public outreach component, I feel that the acquisition of this ability is a very achievable goal.”

“Nicole is determined to use all of her skills to 'apply science to the optimum conversion of natural resources to the benefit of man,' consistent with the classic definition of engineering,” Barnett wrote in nominating her for the fellowship.

Kotulak said she is grateful for the Laird Fellowship and praises its goals and selection criteria. “So many fellowships focus only on academics,” she says. “But there's so much more to engineering than that, and it's those things that color how you approach a problem.”

She is also really pleased with her decision to come to UD as part of the Solar Power Program and an IGERT Fellow. “The other students in this group were a major factor in my decision to come here,” she says, “and they have been wonderfully supportive, especially in bringing me up to speed on the engineering aspects of our work.”

“I honestly don't think my time here at UD would be as enjoyable a learning experience as it has been without the camaraderie of my fellow students in the solar program. They are a large part of why I'm here, and I have to give them some of the credit for my success.”

Article by Diane Kukich

Nicole Kotulak

A self-portrait in black and white.

A photo of Kotulak's grandparents.

The photo "Waiting for the Train."

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