The 28-year-old University of Utah civil and environmental engineering assistant professor, who also is a faculty member in the U’s nuclear engineering program, was just named one of Forbes’ “30 Under 30” in science. He, along with academics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard, and NASA’s Langley Research Center among others, were named one of this year’s outstanding young scientists and scientific entrepreneurs in fields from mathematics to neuroscience and genetics. McDonald was the only researcher from Utah named.
“It feels incredibly exciting,” he said about the announcement. “It’s an honor. It’s also motivation to keep doing more — to get more research funding and get more students to the University of Utah and grow the research program.”
Forbes also named 30 standout individuals each in areas including consumer technology, art and style, energy, finance, music and sports. The science honorees were picked from a list of nominees by judges Cigall Kadoch, assistant professor at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute; Robert Langer, Institute Professor at MIT; and author John Scalzi.
McDonald, who was born and raised in Pensacola, Florida, received his bachelor’s in chemistry at the University of West Florida and a doctorate in radiochemistry at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington. Radiochemistry is the study of the chemical properties of nuclear materials.
“My favorite class in high school was chemistry, and for my first chemistry course in college I had one of the most phenomenal professors,” he said. “I thought, ‘If this is what chemistry is like, I want to do it.’ And I was hooked since then.”
After researching nuclear forensics at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington, McDonald joined the University of Utah in 2014.
“I absolutely love it,” he said about his experience so far at the U. “I love interacting with students and the excitement from students.”
McDonald’s research focuses on better understanding how nuclear materials behave in the environment and figuring out better ways to identify them. This can help officials locate where the contents of a nuclear device came from or who may have constructed a bomb after detonation.
“There is a huge push in the Department of Energy and Department of Defense to train more people in this area,” he said. “We have a shortage of people in this field.”
McDonald also will be hosting a Department of Homeland Security Nuclear Forensics Undergraduate Summer School this year at the U for 12 students who will be taking courses in nuclear forensics.