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UW-Madison Physical Sciences Laboratory turns 50, continues renowned work

The Physical Sciences Laboratory, now 50 years old, has handled more than 6,000 research projects.

Image By: Cameron Lane-Flehinger

UW-Madison’s Physical Sciences Laboratory, located more than 10 miles off campus and surrounded by cornfields, is a world-renowned engineering facility that’s been turning out state-of-the-art projects for half a century.

The PSL operates in relative anonymity — its Facebook page has only 14 likes — but it has handled more than 6,000 projects, including significant parts of the Large Hadron Collider and the Hubble Telescope. In addition to its outside clients, the PSL also serves as a crucial component of the university’s research mission, one that could be compromised by a loss of research funding.

What makes the PSL unusual among large research laboratories, and a popular facility for clients like NASA, is its ability to handle the entire design and fabrication process inside a single facility, according to director Bob Paulos.

“They come in with a napkin sketch and we can do all of the things that come with bringing that napkin sketch to a finished product that actually has been tested and works,” Paulos said. “There are very few universities nationwide that have this kind of a facility.”

The lab is run by a staff of approximately 40 engineers and technicians, along with a small group of undergraduate interns brought in by a program Paulos created when he took over as interim director three years ago. The students, who come mostly from the College of Engineering, spend a summer working alongside professionals on the PSL’s projects.

Although the program currently employs fewer than 10 students each summer, Paulos hopes to increase that number in coming years.

“It's really useful for them, they get some practical hands-on experience dealing with real engineering problems and real engineering projects,” he said. “They learn things here that they're simply not going to learn in the classroom. I'm proud of that.”

As the PSL progresses past its 50th birthday, it will need to navigate a fiscal landscape with shrinking research budgets at both the state and national levels, something Paulos says the lab is prepared to do.

“What's paramount for PSL's long-term viability is that we do quality work,” Paulos said. “The profile and the fact that we're way out, that doesn’t make it easier, but I think by far the most important thing we can do to overcome a lack of name recognition is to continue to do good work.”

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