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WSU Tri-Cities receives $500,000 gift for endowed faculty position in energy research

Bob Ferguson, the first deputy assistant secretary of nuclear energy programs for the U.S. Department of Energy, has made a $500,000 gift for the first endowed faculty position in energy and environment at the Washington State University Tri-Cities campus.  (Courtesy of Washington State University)
Bob Ferguson, the first deputy assistant secretary of nuclear energy programs for the U.S. Department of Energy, has made a $500,000 gift for the first endowed faculty position in energy and environment at the Washington State University Tri-Cities campus. (Courtesy of Washington State University)

Washington State University’s Tri-Cities campus is using a $500,000 gift for an endowed faculty position to jumpstart a new energy research institute at the campus, college officials announced Tuesday.

The contribution comes from Bob Ferguson, the first deputy assistant secretary of nuclear energy programs for the U.S. Department of Energy.

WSU Tri-Cities administrators said the Bob Ferguson Distinguished Professorship in Energy Systems will be tasked with creating energy research agendas. Efforts will include developing multi-disciplinary laboratories, recruiting new faculty members and teaching and supervising graduate and undergraduate students.

The position marks the first step toward a new research institute to help guide decisions with energy resource development across the region, WSU said in Tuesday’s announcement.

WSU Tri-Cities hopes to raise another $2 million to fully support the professorship, providing funding stability to recruit an energy systems expert and to start shaping the institute with funds for research, data collection and partnerships with regional energy entities, such as the Department of Energy, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Energy Northwest.

The campus is expecting to begin a nationwide search in fall 2022. It is WSU Tri-Cities’ first endowed faculty position in energy and environment.

Fundraising efforts will include appointing a local WSU Tri-Cities energy and environment council made up of industry members and experts, according to WSU Tri-Cities.

“For Tri-Cities, the clear differentiator is the confluence of nuclear, solar, hydro, biofuels, and wind power,” WSU President Kirk Schulz said in a statement. “Bob’s gift will help transform WSU Tri-Cities into an energy headquarters for our entire state and region.”

Ferguson said the institute will study the integration of nuclear, solar and wind energy sources.

“This institute would solidify the Tri-Cities as a hub, probably the first one, ever, that can link all of these energy sources, from basic research to full demonstration,” he said in a statement. “Energy is the source of all economic development. We need a curriculum. We need a workforce for the future. WSU Tri-Cities is uniquely positioned to integrate all these areas.”

Ferguson, who served as deputy assistant secretary during President Jimmy Carter’s administration, started working in nuclear energy in 1957 at Hanford nuclear site as a reactor physicist and reactor operations supervisor at the B Reactor in the Tri-Cities. Following his federal appointment, Ferguson served as CEO for the Washington Public Power Supply System, which is now called Energy Northwest.

During his time as chairman of the Tri-City Industrial Development Council, Ferguson was actively involved in discussions to expand the Tri-Cities campus into a fully-fledged WSU campus. Until its official establishment in 1989, the Tri-Cities campus had been the General Electric School of Nuclear Engineering since the 1940s.

In a statement, Ferguson called the gift “a culmination of the vision we had when we established WSU Tri-Cities here.”

“(The institute) can be a model for national initiatives, and really an international initiative, to basically move into this transition from a carbon economy to a carbon-free economy,” Ferguson said.

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