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Four faculty honored with Presidential Early Career Awards

Eric Dahl, Danna Freedman, T. David Harris and Sinan Keten are Northwestern recipients

EVANSTON - Four Northwestern University professors — physicist Eric Dahl, chemists Danna Freedman and T. David Harris and mechanical engineer Sinan Keten — have been awarded the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). President Barack Obama announced the recipients of the prestigious honor this week.

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. The White House, following recommendations from participating federal agencies, confers the awards. A total of 102 researchers across the country are being honored.

“I congratulate these outstanding scientists and engineers on their impactful work,” President Obama said. “These innovators are working to help keep the United States on the cutting edge, showing that federal investments in science lead to advancements that expand our knowledge of the world around us and contribute to our economy.”

The Northwestern researchers focus on a range of challenges: Dahl builds detectors for passing dark matter particles from the Milky Way; Freedman approaches challenges in physics via synthetic inorganic chemistry; Harris designs, synthesizes and studies new functional molecules and materials; and Keten is establishing materials-by-design approaches to bioinspired systems.

PECASE recipients are chosen “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.”

Northwestern’s recipients are:

Eric Dahl

Eric Dahl
Assistant professor of physics and astronomy in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences; joint appointment with Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory

Dahl, nominated by the Department of Energy, received the PECASE for his work in high-energy physics and dark matter detection.

“It’s incredible to be recognized like this,” Dahl said. “I think it reflects how scientific mysteries such as dark matter capture everyone’s imagination, how much people want us to succeed and how they believe we will.”

Dahl specializes in building detectors to look for passing dark matter particles from the Milky Way’s dark matter halo. Astrophysicsts and cosmologists have produced ample evidence of dark matter’s gravitational effect, indicating that it is several times more abundant in the universe than normal matter (atoms, ions, molecules). Precisely what dark matter is made of remains a mystery. Dahl is working both in large collaborations, such as LZ (a 10-ton detector deployed nearly a mile underground, in an old gold mine), and in his lab at Northwestern, where he develops new technologies to better isolate the dark matter signal.

Danna Freedman

Danna Freedman
Assistant professor of chemistry in Weinberg

Freedman received the PECASE for her work on creating new permanent magnets with bismuth. She was nominated by the Department of Defense.

“I am grateful to the White House and the Department of Defense for supporting fundamental scientific research and for providing the financial support to fund our students, the next generation of our scientific workforce,” Freedman said.

Freedman applies the approaches and tools of synthetic inorganic chemistry to fundamental challenges in physics, akin to the highly successful application of inorganic chemistry to challenges in biology. Within this framework, Freedman and her research group are focused on three vital challenges in physics: enabling quantum information processing, creating new permanent magnets and discovering new superconductors.

T. David Harris

Assistant professor of chemistry in Weinberg

Nominated by the Department of Defense, Harris received his PECASE for his outstanding research contributions to the areas of chemical synthesis, molecular magnetism and materials design and for his pioneering proposed work that bridges synthetic molecular chemistry, reactivity and porous materials.

“Receiving this recognition is a tremendous honor for my research group, and the funding associated with the award will greatly aid us in our efforts to make breakthrough scientific discoveries,” Harris said.

Harris and his group apply coordination chemistry — which enables the control of geometric and electronic structure at the atomic level — to design, synthesize and study new functional molecules and materials. Specific interests range from the synthesis of metal-organic magnets (which offer to potentially revolutionize the energy economy) to the development of smart magnetic resonance probes (which could enable researchers to measure and spatially map anomalies in the microenvironment of biological tissue) to the study of reactive species in porous materials (which could lead to the development of new biologically inspired catalysts).

Sinan Keten

Sinan Keten
Associate professor of mechanical engineering and of civil and environmental engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering

Keten, nominated by the Department of Defense, was selected for his key discoveries on the mechanical behavior of biological materials and fundamental contributions to establishing materials-by-design approaches to bioinspired systems. He also was recognized for his exemplary service in promoting computational engineering education. 

“I am honored to be selected for the PECASE award,” Keten said. “This award will allow our research group to create new computational tools to help us understand biological systems and translate what we learn into engineering new materials. Materials design concepts that even simple organisms, such as bacteria, rely on are fascinating. They incorporate all the wonderful things about soft materials we wish to master, such as self-assembly, mechanical robustness and multi-functionality.” 

Keten’s research focuses on computational materials science and mechanics with an emphasis on polymer nanocomposites and biomolecular materials. He has established theoretical models and multiscale simulation techniques to study the physics of soft materials more efficiently and accurately.