New Faces of NPRE: Alam, Liebenberg, Novak and Vergari join faculty

11/13/2023 Phillip Kisubika

Written by Phillip Kisubika

New Faces of NPRE: Alam, Liebenberg, Novak and Vergari join faculty

NPRE has hired five new faculty this year, with four of them starting this semester. With varying research interests and backgrounds, these additions will help bring the department into the future and raise NPRE to new heights.


Alam hopes to make a significant contribution to NPRE in digital twin research

Sometimes careers can come from necessity, and sometimes, they can arise out of passion. Often, they come from both.

When Syed Bahauddin Alam was growing up in Chittagong, Bangladesh, power outages were common. “I wanted to do something to solve those problems worldwide, or at least in Bangladesh,” he said.

That desire to do something led Alam to study electrical engineering in undergraduate, earning a Bachelor of Science from the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET). During his undergraduate studies, a professor in BUET suggested moving his career toward nuclear energy.

“He said nuclear energy can be an amazing source (of power) and there is a lot of potential to contribute there because a lot of areas there are still unexplored,” Alam said.

Alam then went to the United Kingdom, where he earned his Master’s and PhD in nuclear engineering at the University of Cambridge.

His research interests after that led him to Korea, France, and Rhode Island, with his first faculty position coming at Missouri University of Science & Technology in Rolla, MO, about 90 minutes southwest of St. Louis. He began a research lab there, MARTIANS (Machine Learning and ARTIficial Intelligence for Advancing Nuclear Systems) Laboratory, that he hopes to continue at Illinois.

“Missouri S&T was a great place,” Dr. Alam said. “I’m very grateful to Missouri S&T for the opportunity to start my faculty career and grateful to all of my colleagues that really helped me.”

Looking for a new challenge and opportunity, Alam applied to join the NPRE faculty and came to campus last November to give a seminar discussing his research. “I got a really warm welcome,” he said. “I realized that here, I could have a better network and get better visibility of my work. In terms of reputation and prestige, Illinois brings a lot to the table.”

Alam’s work now primarily deals with the realm of artificial intelligence (AI) and its benefits to nuclear energy, including digital twin for nuclear plant monitoring and advanced predictive algorithms. He said he wants to make significant contributions in this area, especially when it comes to digital twins (virtual representations of  entities, processes, or systems).

“The aim is to have a risk-free nuclear world,” Alam said.

That intersection of AI, instrumentation & control, online monitoring, signal processing, and risk-informed decision-making is where Alam hopes to make his mark on NPRE, a place where he is already enjoying life and where he can combine necessity and passion.

“I feel like I’ve been longer,” he said. “I’m enjoying everything. Teaching NPRE 200, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the knowledge of students; they’re unafraid to ask questions. The grad students are amazing…this is a better environment than any faculty could ask for.”


New energy systems professor works to engage students with empathetic mindset


We are all shaped by our experiences. Seeing a deficiency in society can make us want to find a way to make it better.

For Leon Liebenberg, growing up in apartheid-era South Africa helped breed a desire to bring people together instead of dividing them.

“I think I’m an integrator,” Liebenberg said. “I love teamwork. I love working with people and getting people to collaborate. We can learn so much from each other, if only we could really listen to one another.”

Liebenberg is NPRE’s first teaching professor, joining the department from a few buildings over in Mechanical Science & Engineering. Before coming to UIUC in 2017, he was a higher education consultant in Lausanne, Switzerland for three years. And prior to that, he was a full professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Pretoria and a full research professor at the North-West University, South Africa.

After he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1989, Liebenberg worked in the manufacturing industry for five years but found that he missed academia, which led him to go to graduate school for his two master’s and PhD degrees. After teaching his first class, he knew that “that was it.”

“I like being around people with fresh ideas,” he said. “My students energize me. I love learning and sharing what I’ve learned. And my students always bring new perspectives to my teaching and hopefully also to their learning.”

When he arrived at the U of I, he taught classes in MechSE that included many NPRE students, including Thermodynamics and Fundamentals of Fluid Dynamics. “Guess who were always the top students in those classes? The nuclear engineering students,” Liebenberg said. “Who were always asking the most difficult questions? NPRE students!”

Last summer, the opportunity arose to come to NPRE and lead the Master’s of Engineering in Energy Systems program. Liebenberg had just written a textbook on energy systems that will be published in March 2024, so the stars seemed to align for him. “In that book, I share not only the fundamentals of energy conversion systems, but also insights and aspirations of young energy entrepreneurs and several engineering students whom I’ve interviewed. The book attempts to convey the importance of reimagining our future and assuming an entrepreneurial and reflective mindset when doing so.”

“When I heard about the position at NPRE, it just ticked all the boxes. I have been researching energy systems and teaching in that field my whole career. And the novel MEng (Energy Systems) program has been delivering engineers with high-level knowledge and skills in energy systems for the past 10 years. What a privilege to be associated with this program and its interdisciplinary faculty and students,” he said.

For Liebenberg, “interdisciplinary” is a magic word. “People see things from different contexts, whether they’re from biological engineering, electrical engineering, or mechanical engineering,” he said. “If you ask the same question of a nuclear engineer or a mechanical engineer, you might get the same slant but different perspectives. That’s how new ideas are born.

Liebenberg says he tries to teach a bit differently than might be the norm. In a technological environment, the default is to think and do. He said he tries to work empathy and emotion into the thought process and his teaching methods, challenging his students to look for societal needs and empathize with the people involved. “I try and get students to emotionally connect with the learning material, and with their peers.”

“That demands a different mindset than just thinking and doing,” Liebenberg said. “It demands that we feel or emote. Think – FEEL – do.  We’re in a mess on planet Earth, and the only way we’re going to get out of it is if we change the way we look at things. Our students therefore need to be comfortable with empathizing and changing their perspectives. Unfortunately, words like ‘love’ or ‘emotion’ are uncommon in engineering teaching. It’s much easier to pull out your calculator and do a few calculations or write a computer program and build something than to reflect on why you might be designing that specific product in the first place or how it might benefit society or help regenerate Earth.”

Liebenberg’s inclusive nature may, in the end, reflect how he sees academia and what it’s given him. Liebenberg enthuses that “academia has shown me that transformative and resilient forms of learning are embedded in a web of social relations, meaningful learning experiences, and shared activities with which the students feel a sense of affinity. I am thrilled to continue creating learning strategies at NPRE to effectively tap into students’ emotions to trigger feelings of delight, surprise, understanding, empathy, and trust.”


Novak returns to alma mater to join ‘wonderful’ faculty


When she was taking classes in NPRE, April Novak could envision herself being an educator.

“I’ve always been interested in research and teaching,” Novak said. “I was a teaching assistant in a few classes as an undergraduate and loved the interactions with students. I knew I wanted to be in the shoes of a professor someday.”

She is now an assistant professor in the same department where received her Bachelor’s degree in 2015. Novak took classes as an undergraduate from people she can now call colleagues: Professors Tomasz Kozlowski, James Stubbins, Brent Heuser, William Roy, Rizwan Uddin, and Zahra Mohaghegh.

After getting her PhD at the University of California, Berkeley, Novak went to work at Argonne National Laboratory as a Maria Goeppert Mayer Fellow. The Maria Goeppert Mayer Fellowship aims to attract early career researchers who are eager to develop their careers in Argonne’s mission-driven, high-impact research environment.

While at Argonne, Novak was able to collaborate with faculty and students in NPRE, occasionally giving seminars to undergraduate and graduate students. She also hosted two NPRE students as interns while at Argonne.

When the opportunity arose to come back to NPRE as a faculty, there was little hesitation. “The department is really special to me because it’s played such a role in my life and my development,” Novak said. “The faculty are wonderful and very welcoming, and I think the research they do is phenomenal.”

Novak was also hired as an affiliate with the National Center for Supercomputing Applications on the UIUC campus. “It’s a great partnership to blend computational with applications to nuclear engineering,” she said.

Recently, Novak was recognized for her work developing Cardinal (an open source, multi-physics, and multi-scale simulation platform) while at Argonne, in collaboration with Idaho National Laboratory.

“It allows engineers to get a better physics understanding of different innovative reactor designs,” Novak said of Cardinal. “The idea is to have a toolkit that allows you to explore physics, reactor safety, different operation regimes and paradigms to develop new nuclear technology.”

“The reason I got into nuclear engineering is the potential it has for climate change…a zero-carbon, no greenhouse gas technology,” Novak said. “I think the time scales we have to address climate change are getting closer and closer, and I wanted to focus my career on this challenging problem.”

“My biggest hope for my career in NPRE is to develop computational science that ‘pushes the needle’ on advanced nuclear technologies – to take advances in computing to answer engineering questions faster and to let us bring new technologies to market faster.”

When asked what advice she will give her new students, Novak said she would encourage them to try new experiences, whether it’s different classes outside their department or embarking on a new research topic.

“The education I got in the department allowed me to have agency and really be able to express myself as an engineer,” Novak said. “To be able to try and give that gift to others is really rewarding.”


Vergari looks to build chemistry in NPRE


In chemistry, a catalyst is something that speeds up and moves a chemical reaction along. In life, a catalyst can be something as simple as a book, an interaction, or a TV show.

As a child growing up in Italy, Lorenzo “L” Vergari was interested in math and science, but what put one of NPRE’s newest faculty on a path toward nuclear engineering was a cartoon.

“Dexter’s Laboratory” was an animated show originated in the U.S. in the late 1990s, centered around an enthusiastic prodigy with a hidden science laboratory in his room full of inventions, which he keeps secret from his parents.

“There was this kid splitting the atom and generating a lot of energy,” Vergari said. “In the beginning, it was just fun, and as I grew up, it became more interesting from a technical standpoint.”

Vergari went on to receive degrees from the Polytechnic University of Milan and the Polytechnic University of Torino, before making the decision to come to the United States to pursue a PhD in nuclear engineering at the University of California, Berkeley.

“I went to Berkeley because I knew I wanted to do something related to advanced nuclear reactors,” Vergari said. “The best way to do that was in the U.S., and a PhD program was the entry point. When I got to Berkeley, I didn’t know whether I wanted to do academia or industry. I taught a couple classes, interacted with the students. What I really liked about being a professor is that you could choose your research and be independent.”

Around the second year of the PhD program, Vergari decided to work toward being a professor. “I started to build and shape my PhD so that I could get experience and be ready,” Vergari said.

As Vergari gets acclimated to life in NPRE, the new assistant professor is trying to develop a new research group, the Advanced Blankets & Coolants (ABC) Laboratory. Its mission is to investigate candidate materials that will be used as coolants in advanced fission reactors and breeding blankets in fusion reactors.

“At this stage, what I want to do is build a group that can grow and broaden its scope,” Vergari said. “I’m starting with a focus on molten salts, which continues the work I’ve done in my PhD, but I want to expand to liquid metals in the near future.”

Dr. Vergari hopes to add a new chemistry component to NPRE and wants to blend that into materials science work and computational science being done already.

“I want to bring a chemistry angle to the NPRE coursework,” Vergari said. “It was more popular decades ago for light water reactors. Now that we have a new generation of reactors, it’s important to define what chemical aspects we need to improve on. Bringing back that focus on chemistry is my goal.”

Share this story

This story was published November 13, 2023.