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Two Faculty Honored with Presidential Early Career Awards

Elad Harel and James Rondinelli will be celebrated at the White House in spring
  • Elad Harel is developing powerful optical methods for energy sciences
  • Harel’s insight into light-induced processes could lead to more efficient solar cells
  • James Rondinelli’s passion is to manipulate materials at their fundamental electronic level
  • Rondinelli has transformed scientists’ approach to designing novel electronic materials 

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Two Northwestern University professors -- chemist Elad Harel and materials scientist and engineer James Rondinelli -- have been awarded the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). President Barack Obama announced the recipients of the prestigious honor yesterday (Feb. 18).

The PECASE is the highest honor bestowed by the United States government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers. A total of 105 researchers across the country are being honored.

Harel is being recognized for his pioneering work on the development of powerful optical techniques to probe the structure and dynamics of complex chemical systems at the extremes of time, space and energy in order to tackle some of the most pressing and challenging problems in chemical physics as well as for his commitment to cross-disciplinary research and education, his unwavering support of undergraduate and graduate students and his overall leadership in the scientific community. 

Rondinelli is being recognized for his seminal research contributions in computational condensed matter physics and novel materials design approaches. He has transformed the scientific community’s approach to designing materials using broken inversion symmetry at interfaces and provided the first-ever methodology for predicting the relationship between strain and octahedral rotations in complex oxides, paving the way for the design of many-body quantum properties in ways previously not considered possible. 

Harel and Rondinelli will be invited to the White House this spring to meet President Obama and attend an awards ceremony.

“These early-career scientists are leading the way in our efforts to confront and understand challenges from climate change to our health and wellness,” President Obama said. “We congratulate these accomplished individuals and encourage them to continue to serve as an example of the incredible promise and ingenuity of the American people.”

Elad Harel

“I am so thankful to the Department of Defense and the White House for recognizing the importance of supporting young scientists and their research groups at such a critical stage in their careers,” said Harel, an assistant professor of chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. “Without this type of support, we could not take the bold risks necessary to make breakthroughs in science.”

Harel’s highly interdisciplinary research crosses boundaries into biology, materials chemistry, mathematics and engineering. He is a recognized leader in the field of spectroscopy and imaging of condensed phase chemical and biological systems. Harel’s work in magnetic resonance and optics has enabled him to develop new methods that allow deep insights into how energy flows in materials at the extremes of time and space. He is poised to become a major contributor to the study of the structure and dynamics of complex systems. These systems are the basis for the next generation of materials that will enable a faster, more efficient military.

His proposed research is aimed at measuring and controlling energy flow in engineered nanoscale materials. Understanding how energy is captured and transported in materials is of fundamental importance to the multi-disciplinary energy sciences. Harel plans to develop a new suite of methods that can unambiguously measure energy flow at the nanoscale. The methods could have major implications for the Department of Defense to develop the next generation of devices that efficiently transform energy sources (e.g. sunlight) to do useful work in possibly unpredictable environments. 

James Rondinelli

“It’s a great honor to receive such recognition at this stage of my scientific career, where I’ve focused on creating new knowledge and training a new generation of scientists and engineers to solve 21st-century problems,” said Rondinelli, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. “The award is particularly gratifying because it recognizes the importance of fundamental theoretical and computational science research to the nation’s priorities.”

Rondinelli’s passion is to manipulate materials at their fundamental electronic level, pushing electrons to do new things in materials and to realize new functionalities -- by designing materials atom by atom. His work focuses on the theory, design and applications of complex ternary/quaternary metal oxide and fluoride ceramics, including crystals and thin films, for low-power electronics, high-temperature applications, non-linear optical and oxidation-resistant systems and devices. Rondinelli formulates novel theories to address contradictory property-performance challenges by employing “first principles” approaches based on quantum mechanical calculations and computational science tools, including data informatics. By understanding the material physics and chemistry of known compounds, Rondinelli is able to predict the behavior of yet-to-be-synthesized materials, accelerating the discovery of new structurally and chemically complex compounds.

The PECASE award will enable Rondinelli to apply his expertise in engineering physical phenomena with interfaces to devise multifunctional materials that exhibit antithetical behavior -- high conductivity and broken inversion symmetry -- which present an opportunity to deeply impact technology. “The fundamental work in this program will allow us to move this emerging class of materials forward as a platform for the next generation of logic, memory and security devices,” Rondinelli said.


The Presidential Early Career Awards highlight the key role the administration places in encouraging and accelerating American innovation to grow the U.S. economy and tackle the country’s greatest challenges. 

Twelve federal departments and agencies join together annually to nominate young scientists and engineers whose work is of greatest benefit to the nominating agency’s mission. Harel and Rondinelli were nominated by the Department of Defense, which funds their research.

Awardees are selected for their pursuit of innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology and their commitment to community service as demonstrated through scientific leadership, public education or community outreach.