Michael Tonks named Presidential Early Career Award winner

January 23, 2017

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Michael Tonks, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and nuclear engineering at Penn State, was selected by former U.S. President Barack Obama to receive a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE).

The PECASE is the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on scientists in the early stages of their careers. Tonks, one of 102 awardees for 2017, will receive the award during a ceremony at the White House.

“I congratulate these outstanding scientists and engineers on their impactful work,” Obama said. “These innovators are working to help keep the United States on the cutting edge, showing that Federal investments in science lead to advancements that expand our knowledge of the world around us and contribute to our economy.”

Tonks leads the Microstructure Science and Engineering Lab in the Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering Department, which applies computer simulations to understand the impact of the basic structure of a material on its application and performance. Simulations are also used to understand how the material structure can change while it is in use. While his research looks at many applications, his primary focus is on the behavior of materials within the harsh environment of a nuclear reactor.

“I am honored and humbled to be selected for the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers," Tonks said. "It would not be possible without lots of help and support from my colleagues and collaborators.”

Prior to joining Penn State in 2015, Tonks worked as a staff scientist in the Fuels Modeling and Simulation Department at Idaho National Laboratory for six years. He was the original creator of the mesoscale fuel performance tool MARMOT, which has been adopted by the U.S. Department of Energy Nuclear Engineering Advanced Modeling and Simulation (NEAMS) program, and lead its development for five years. He helped to pioneer the approach taken in the NEAMS program to use multiscale modeling and simulation to inform the development of materials models for reactor fuel performance codes that are based on microstructure rather than burn-up, and he won the NEAMS Excellence Award for that work in 2014 and the ANS Materials Science and Technology Division special achievement award in 2015.

The PECASE, established by President Clinton in 1996, are coordinated by the Office of Science and Technology Policy within the Executive Office of the President. Awardees are selected for their pursuit of innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology and their commitment to community service as demonstrated through scientific leadership, public education, or community outreach.

This year’s recipients are employed or funded by the following departments and agencies: Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, Department of Education, Department of Energy, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of the Interior, Department of Veterans Affairs, Environmental Protection Agency, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Science Foundation, Smithsonian Institution, and the Intelligence Community. These departments and agencies join together annually to nominate the most meritorious scientists and engineers whose early accomplishments show the greatest promise for assuring America’s preeminence in science and engineering and contributing to the awarding agencies' missions.


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Chris Hennessey


Image of microstructure

This image from Michael Tonks’ research lab shows a 3-D simulation predicting crystal growth in a copper polycrystal and represents the ability to model 3-D microstructure evolution.

Dr. Michael Tonks and his lab team

Michael Tonks and his lab team. From left are Ph.D. students Ian Greenquist, nuclear engineering; Floyd Hilty, materials science, Marina Ferreira Fonseca Sessim, nuclear engineering; Shuaifang Zhang, mechanical engineering; Amani Cheniour- nuclear engineering; Jacob Hirschhorn, nuclear engineering; and Aashique Rezwan, mechanical engineering.

“I am honored and humbled to be selected for the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. It would not be possible without lots of help and support from my colleagues and collaborators.” — Michael Tonks



The Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering at Penn State is one of the nation’s largest and most successful engineering departments. We serve more than 1,000 undergraduate students and more than 330 graduate students

We offer B.S. degrees in mechanical engineering and nuclear engineering as well as resident (M.S., Ph.D.) and online (M.S., M.Eng.) graduate degrees in nuclear engineering and mechanical engineering. MNE's strength is in offering hands-on experience in highly relevant research areas, such as energy, homeland security, biomedical devices, and transportation systems.

Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering

137 Reber Building

The Pennsylvania State University

University Park, PA 16802-4400

Phone: 814-865-2519