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Hudson native receives presidential award for scientific research

Dr. Gregory D. Fuchs is a tenure-track assistant professor of applied and engineering physics at Cornell University.

Gregory D. Fuchs of Cornell University, a 1991 graduate of Hudson High School, will be a recipient of a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on researchers in the early stages of their careers.

“The impressive achievements of these early-stage scientists and engineers are promising indicators of even greater successes ahead,” the president was quoted as saying in a Dec. 23 news release from the White House. “We are grateful for their commitment to generating the scientific and technical advancements that will ensure America’s global leadership for many years to come.”

The news release said the awards embody the high priority the Obama Administration places on “producing outstanding scientists and engineers to advance the nations goals, tackle grand challenges and contribute to the American economy.”

Fuchs has been a tenure-track assistant professor at Cornell for the past two-and-a-half years, after earlier earning his master’s and Ph.D. degrees in applied physics from the Ivy League university located in Ithaca, N.Y.

His research centers on “understanding and controlling spin dynamics in solid-state systems,” according to his faculty profile on the Cornell website.

“I’m a condensed-matter, or solid-state, physicist,” he explained when reached by phone at his university office earlier this month. He said that means he works with materials that are literally solid things --“crystals, metals, stuff that might go in your computer.”

But Fuchs peers deep into those materials -- deep enough to see the extremely tiny electrons that are part of their makeup.

His particular area of interest is in a property of electrons called spin, which produces magnetic attraction.

“You get magnetism in materials when the spins of the electrons all point in the same direction,” he said.

Spin also is “this other whole chunk of information that electrons can deal with,” he said. “It turns out the cheapest way to store information with really high density is in small magnets.”

Electrons follow the rules of quantum mechanics, and Fuchs does research in quantum information processing. His work could contribute to development of a super-fast and powerful quantum computer.

“The particular thing that I’m working on that is related to this award is with magnetic materials. I’m working on developing new ways of seeing what magnets are doing at these tiny, tiny scales,” he said.

Magnetic technology also is immune to gamma rays in space and could lead to great energy savings, he said.

“For the most part, the Department of Defense is just interested in having a technology edge in the United States,” he said. “They want to keep technology development going in the U.S.”

Fuchs’ nano-magnetism research at Cornell is funded by a grant from the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research. The Air Force manager of the program recommended Fuchs for the presidential award.

Unconventional route

Fuchs took an unconventional route to a professorship at one of the nation’s elite universities.

He majored in chemistry and physics education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and upon graduating in 1996, was a high school teacher for five years. He spent one year at Hopkinsville High School in southwestern Kentucky, and then four years at Park High School in Cottage Grove, Minn.

His participation in a research project at the University of Minnesota one summer is what lured him away from high school teaching.

“I thought, well, this is fun. I want to do this some more,” he related. “There is only one way to do that. You have to go get a Ph.D.”

He got a fellowship to do graduate work at Cornell and earned his Ph.D. from the university in 2007.

After four years as a postdoctoral associate researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Fuchs was hired as a faculty member in the same department at Cornell -- the School of Applied and Engineering Physics -- where he earned his graduate degrees. That doesn’t usually happen, he noted.

Fuchs has returned to teaching, too, in addition to being a researcher.

He re-designed a course called Computerized Instrumentation Design that teaches budding engineers and physicists how to set up an experiment, control it with a computer and analyze the data.

In the coming semester, he’ll teach a graduate course on nano-fabrication.

“I love teaching. I’m not a huge fan of grading, but I like teaching,” he said.

Early years

Fuchs’ parents, Everett and Carolyn, still live in the house on Laurel Avenue where he grew up. They’re better known by their nicknames -- Bud and Cally.

Bud is a biologist and was a program manager in the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He’s officially retired, but continues to work for the service as a contractor.

Cally is a licensed psychologist with an independent practice.

Bud remembers Greg liking to solve problems at an early age.

His own mechanical aptitude isn’t that good, Bud said. Sometimes he would have trouble repairing something and ask Greg -- when he was still in elementary school -- if he could figure it out.

“And a lot of times he did,” Bud said with a laugh.

“I always told all my kids that genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration,” Bud said. “Greg has been an extremely hard worker.”

“Greg’s been a joy,” he added. He’s also proud of his son for having attained Eagle rank as a Boy Scout.

The elder Fuchs credits retired third-grade E.P. Rock Elementary teacher Robert Steffen with lighting the intellectual curiosity in his middle son.

He remembers Greg coming home from school one day and telling him: “Mr. Steffen makes us work extra hard, but he makes the work be fun.”

The Fuchs’ other two sons also have been successful in their educations and careers.

Tom, the oldest, has a master’s degree in psychology from St. Mary’s University in Minneapolis and an MBA from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. A California resident, he works for the large biomedical company Genetech and is currently responsible for bringing a new cancer treatment to market.

Jeff, the youngest, was a graduate student at Cornell during Greg’s final year there as a doctoral candidate. Jeff earned an MBA from Cornell. He now works for GE Energy in New York State, where he is responsible for renewable energy strategic planning.

An honor

“Are you kidding? It is fantastic!” Greg Fuchs replied when asked if he’s happy about being selected for the Presidential Early Career Award. “It is really a big honor. It’s a tremendous recognition.”

Fuchs said there is no guarantee that President Obama will present the awards in person, but that is what has happened in past years.

Randy Hanson

Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.

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