Determination helps undergraduate researcher stay ahead of the game

THE ONE WHO KNOCKS: Russell persisted and kept knocking on Tsui’s door. He wanted to tackle a research problem.

(EDMONTON) When Brandon Russell, then a third-year electrical engineering student, approached Ying Tsui, an associate dean of research and internationalization and professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, to learn about research opportunities at top facilities abroad, Tsui warned him it was a harsh world out there. Especially if you are an undergrad trying to settle in on the graduate territory.

Russell persisted and kept knocking on Tsui’s door asking for more advice, and, hopefully, a research problem to tackle.  

“If the student’s so persistent, he might be a good fit for research,” said Tsui. “I thought, ‘Let’s give him a chance.’”

Tsui and his collaborator at Stanford University paired Russell up with a research team at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California, tasked to work on a complex nuclear fusion project.   

“To get an undergraduate student to do research at Stanford was a huge deal. I didn’t expect him to complete the project, I just wanted Brandon to learn something new,” said Tsui.

Russell turned this learning opportunity into a solution to a problem—by the end of his three-and-a-half-month appointment at SLAC, the group got the system working.

“I expected it would take a year to reach that stage,” said Tsui.

 It was Russell’s determination that landed him a chance to prove himself. What won him the respect of Stanford’s leading nuclear fusion experts were his discipline and his ability to grasp complex concepts with little supervision.

“I’ve never taken any classes related to my research projects. I had to teach myself, read a lot of papers,” said Russell. By a lot, Russell meant three graduate theses and five articles—this is how much nuclear fusion research he had to burn through before he could approach his assigned task.

What followed was a three-week research trip to Hamburg, Germany’s Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron, DESY, one of the world’s leading accelerator centres. There, Russell’s job was to program the laser research his group was conducting. “I worked 20-hour days. It was a completely new project,” Russell said.

Even though Russell’s research and coursework completed in the Faculty of Engineering had little to do with the work he carried out at DESY, he took with him his ability to problem-solve and his determination and work ethic.

Russell said he had always wanted to do research and get an advanced degree, because “it would give me assets to start my own business.” In second year, his lab-mate and mentor cautioned him to never do a PhD if he was feeling entrepreneurial. But it is exactly what Russell will be up to over the next five years as he’s starting a fully-funded doctoral program in plasma physics at the University of Michigan. 

Learning is also what occupies Russell’s free time. “I think of ideas and I learn things. I want to know how certain things happen,” he said. “I want to understand everything.”

Looking back on when Russell first asked about research, Tsui doesn’t regret choosing him to go to Stanford’s research hub over hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students. “If you challenge a good student, they can accomplish a lot,” Tsui said. “Brandon is already ahead of many accomplished graduate students.”