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Zurk honored as one of top young scientists

Lake Oswego resident honored by President Bush during ceremony at the White House
by: submitted photo, 
Lisa Zurk, Lake Oswego, poses at the White House with her national PECASE award as one of the nations’ top 20 young scientists.

At a young age, Lisa Zurk could well have an impact on science in the 21st century.

That was recognized on Nov. 2 when the Lake Oswego resident was honored by PECASE as one of the nation's top 20 young scientists, as nominated by the National Science Foundation. In all, 56 scientists and engineers were nominated.

Zurk was honored at a White House reception, where she and the other nominees were congratulated by President George W. Bush.

'It was exciting,' Zurk said. 'It was a great honor to be recognized by the Office of the President.'

PECASE stands for Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, and beyond the plaudits at a prestigious ceremony, it confirmed that Zurk is truly on the right track.

'This recognition is one of the highest distinctions for a scientist,' Zurk said. 'But it also highlights the great work that is coming out of my lab.'

Zurk's research on electromagnetic and acoustic waves has the potential to protect civilians and soldiers from explosives and also help in medical imaging for the early detection of cancer. She is truly a groundbreaker in this new field.

'It can be used for a variety of things, like the IED problems in Iraq,' Zurk said. 'Terahertz (a non-ionizing radiation) has the ability to penetrate clothing, paper or wood. And explosives have unique fingerprints that Terahertz can identify.'

'These are the potentialities. It's one of the most interesting new areas in science. Five years ago no one knew anything about it.'

A professor in the electrical engineering department at Portland State University, Zurk has already accomplished much at a young age. But she doesn't claim she was a child prodigy while growing up in Boston.

'I didn't take apart radios or things like that,' Zurk said.

However, she was good in math and science, and she was a girl who liked a challenge.

'I thought I could make a contribution in science,' Zurk said. 'It's something tangible you can do. We all feel the importance of the need. It's always in your mind.

'It's a great challenge. There's so much to do. But it's a wonderful career path.'

Zurk received a very Bostonian education, obtaining degrees at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Northeastern University, before moving to the Northwest and earning her doctorate at the University of Washington.

After a 10-year stint at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, Zurk went to Portland State. Her coming there was considered an important step for PSU becoming a world-class research center in the future.

Zurk is an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering in the Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science at PSU.

'We are thrilled about this well-deserved award,' said Michael Reardon, interim president of PSU. 'Professor Zurk's work exemplifies the great research going on at Portland State …'

Zurk's road to the PECASE award started with her proposal, 'Electromagnetic Scattering and Propagation in Random Media at Terahertz Frequencies.'

That is truly a mouthful for the general public. But Zurk's proposal resulted in her selection for a five-year, $400,000 NSF Career Award from the National Science Foundation.

What people will have no trouble understanding are the benefits that Zurk's research could bring.

'Historically, the rest of the spectrum is known except for the Terahertz gap,' Zurk said. 'Ultra fast optics provides a method for generating energy in this region and in wave propagation critical to using this energy in applications. Unlike X-rays, which are ionizing, this is safe.'

Besides her groundbreaking research, Zurk also has a teaching load at Portland State, and she says, 'I'm always looking for good students.'

When not in the science world, Zurk and her husband Michel Pinton, principal software engineer for Cognex Corporation, like to enjoy their new surroundings in the Northwest.

'Oregon, I love it,' Zurk said.