The path leading Katherine Royston from Wellington, Florida, and William Walters from Vancouver, Canada, to Virginia Tech’s Nuclear Engineering Program may seem circuitous. However, the two former University of Florida, Gainesville, students -- who made history by receiving the first doctoral degrees from the Virginia Tech program this spring -- knew exactly where they were going. 

“There was never a doubt that I wanted to complete my Ph.D. with Dr. Alireza Haghighat, who is widely known in the nuclear engineering field,” said Royston. “So when he was recruited by Virginia Tech from the University of Florida, I was determined to follow him.”

The same held true for Walters, who said that “Dr. Haghighat has had a huge influence on me. He has taught me so much and has been an important mentor during my many years of working with him.”

An internationally known educator, Haghighat, Florida Power and Light Endowed Term Professor at the University of Florida, began his tenure at the Florida campus as the chair of the Nuclear and Radiological Engineering Department in 2001 and spent the next eight years in that position.

Haghighat served as graduate advisor for Royston and Walters while they were earning masters’ degrees at the University of Florida, in nuclear engineering sciences (medical physics) and nuclear engineering sciences, respectively.

The two students had already begun the Ph.D. program in Florida when the three of them left for Virginia Tech in January of 2011,

Haghighat relocated from Blacksburg to the Virginia Tech Research Center — Arlington in the National Capital Region in July 2011 to serve as director of the Nuclear Science and Engineering Lab, which is part of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science, Royston and Williams moved to Arlington in May 2012.

Virginia Tech's College of Engineering revived its nuclear engineering program in 2007 and soon started offering graduate coursework that allowed a student to earn a master's of engineering degree in mechanical engineering with a nuclear certificate. In 2013, the program received approval from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia to award masters and doctoral degrees.

Haghighat served as committee chair for Royston’s dissertation, “A Novel Methodology for Iterative Image Reconstruction in SPECT Using Deterministic Particle Transport,” and Walters’ dissertation, “Development of the Adaptive Collision Source Method for Discrete Ordinates Radiation Transport.”

“Throughout my academic career I have been very fortunate to work with exceptional graduate students who now serve as leaders in academia, government agencies, and industry,” said Haghighat. “Katherine and Will are outstanding individuals, both intellectually and personally, who have already proven that they have the potential to make important contributions to nuclear education and research.”

To this point, Royston and Haghighat have filed for a patent on a novel methodology for image reconstruction, entitled “Deterministic particle transport for Medical Image Reconstruction (DMIR),” and Walters and Haghighat are in the process of filing for a patent for a methodology for simulation of spent nuclear fuel pools referred to as RAPID (Real-time Analysis for spent fuel Pool In-situ Detection).

Throughout their graduate studies, Royston and Walters published numerous journal and conference papers as first authors and presented several papers at national and international meetings. Moreover, they contributed to preparing for and conducting several workshops including the 13th International Workshop on Methodologies for Particle Transport Simulation of Nuclear Systems, held in November 2011, and more recently, the First Workshop on Spent Nuclear Fuel Pool Simulations, Safety and Security, held last month.

These workshops attracted participants from universities, government agencies, and industries in the United States and countries including Brazil, Czech Republic, Japan, and Korea. Both workshops were held at the Virginia Tech Research Center — Arlington and the latter was sponsored by the Office of the Vice President in the National Capital Region.

Royston headed to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, earlier this month to join the Reactor and Nuclear Systems Division at Oak Ridge National Lab, which provides science and technology in support of nuclear power for the United States and the world.

“I look forward to applying the knowledge I’ve gained in physics and nuclear sciences in a way that benefits everyday life,” she said.

Walters, who is currently finishing up several projects at the Virginia Tech Research Center, is pursuing career opportunities and would like to join academia. “I believe that my work here at the research center and my work with Dr. Haghighat has prepared me well for whatever the future holds for me,” said Walters.