Skip to main content
Awards and Recognition | Physical Sciences and Engineering

Argonne researchers forge discovery and collaboration through early career program

Five researchers recount pivotal discoveries and scientific progress made during award program

Supporting the visionary science of exceptional researchers in the crucial early stages of their careers helps to ensure continued national and global scientific progress. To this end, the Physical Sciences and Engineering (PSE) directorate at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory has developed the PSE Early Investigator Named Award (EINA) program designed to support outstanding early career researchers as they break into their fields.

Five Argonne researchers were selected for the program’s first cohort in 2021. The awardees received funding, mentorship and support from the laboratory community to conduct ground-breaking research aligned with Argonne’s strategic mission.

Argonne is committed to investing in outstanding early career researchers,” said Kawtar Hafidi, Argonne associate laboratory director for PSE. They bring a fresh and unique perspective to the work they do, and we want to provide them every opportunity to forge discovery and collaboration early on. I’m incredibly proud of this first cohort and what they’ve accomplished this year.”

Here is a look at what the 2021 PSE EINA cohort achieved during the award period and what they plan to do next.

Andrew Hearin, High Energy Physics

Andrew Hearin, an assistant physicist in Argonne’s High Energy Physics division, conducted cutting-edge research in the area of stellar population synthesis, a domain of astrophysics focusing on spectral energy distributions (SEDs) of the light emitted by galaxies.

As part of this research, Hearin developed Differentiable Stellar Population Synthesis (DSPS), a new software tool for making theoretical predictions of galaxy SEDs. The research resulted in a manuscript currently submitted for publication, and the DSPS library is publicly available on github. Since publicly releasing DSPS, Hearin has been invited to multiple speaking engagements and has forged new collaborations with domain experts.

Hearin is now beginning to leverage the performance capabilities of DSPS to generate synthetic universes of galaxies with realistic SEDs. This work is part of a larger effort to disseminate mock universes for analysis by the Legacy Survey of Space and Time and Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument collaborations, two of the leading DOE cosmology missions designed to study dark energy.

Pietro Papa Lopes, Materials Science

Pietro Papa Lopes, an assistant scientist in Argonne’s Materials Science division, pursued experimental work on electrodeposition of metal oxide materials for use in energy storage systems, such as lithium-ion batteries.

Existing studies on electrodeposition require temperatures above 400 degrees Fahrenheit and electrolyte compositions incompatible with operating batteries. The PSE EINA program provided an exploratory opportunity for Papa Lopes to further clarify what is needed to accomplish successful electrodeposition of metal oxides under realistic conditions. In addition, this award enabled Papa Lopes to submit a full proposal to the DOE Early Career Research Program (ECRP), which is now under review.

I am incredibly thankful for this opportunity,” said Papa Lopes. I believe the PSE Early Investigator Named Award is an excellent program to support early-career researchers at a critical time in their careers.”

Michael Servis, Chemical Sciences and Engineering

Michael Servis, an assistant chemist in Argonne’s Chemical Sciences and Engineering division, is researching ways to efficiently recover rare earths and precious metals from dissolved ores or when recycling waste. 

The PSE EINA program supported him as he collected preliminary data and wrote a full proposal through DOE’s Office of Basic Energy Sciences as the lead PI. The proposal was selected for funding by DOE and awarded $2.4 million over three years as part of an effort to secure the supply of critical materials for clean energy technologies.

The work also resulted in a paper, Mesostructuring in Liquid−Liquid Extraction Organic Phases Originating from Critical Points,” published online on June 17, 2020, in the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters.

The PSE Early Investigator Named Award gives young researchers like me the freedom to pursue the new ideas that we bring to our respective fields,” said Servis. It enabled me to develop my ideas independently and eventually fold this work into the ongoing efforts of my research group.”

Servis plans to focus on leading his project over the next three years and using what he has learned to develop a DOE ECRP proposal.

Jie Xu, Nanoscience and Technology

Jie Xu, an assistant scientist in Argonne’s Nanoscience and Technology division, is developing Polybot, a machine learning-integrated robotic platform that can synthesize, process and characterize materials autonomously. Its purpose is to drive scientific discovery with little to no human intervention by bringing together the power of robotics with high-performance computing.

Over the course of the PSE EINA program, Xu and her team developed the software environment for this self-driving lab. After preliminary data collection, Xu submitted a DOE ECRP proposal and participated in two DOE Energy Frontier Research Center proposals. Xu gave an invited talk about this work at the American Physical Society’s Spring 2022 meeting in March, and she has been invited to speak at the Materials Research Society’s Spring 2022 and Fall 2022 international conferences. She was also named one of America’s 50 greatest technical disruptors by Newsweek Magazine for her work in flexible electronics and autonomous discovery.

At present, she is applying the Polybot platform to develop new types of electronic materials for future flexible electronics, such as ​“green” electronics that are recyclable or degrade after use. In the future, she plans to use this self-driving platform to accelerate further discoveries on electronic and optoelectronic materials.

Jake Zappala, Physics

Jake Zappala, an assistant physicist in Argonne’s Physics division, focuses on advancing Atom Trap Trace Analysis (ATTA), a technique developed at Argonne and used for precision measurements and sensitive detection of rare isotopes.

During the award period, Zappala built a test stand to simulate a portion of an ATTA instrument, which he used to further develop the technique for helium and other noble gases. These advances could help researchers address backgrounds and impurities in searches for signatures of physics beyond the Standard Model through enhanced detection of rare helium isotopes.

A paper is in development based on data taken during the award period. Additionally, the award helped to establish new collaborations, both with the Neutron Electric Dipole Moment project to take place at DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory and with a neutron lifetime measurement experiment previously based at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The work Zappala conducted with this award underpinned a strong application for DOE’s ECRP, which is currently under review.

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://​ener​gy​.gov/​s​c​ience.