UW–Madison researchers win White House science award

Sept. 29, 2011

by Chris Barncard

The White House has named a pair of University of Wisconsin–Madison researchers and a recent alumnus to a list of the country's most promising researchers.

Materials science and engineering professor Michael Arnold, chemistry professor Daniel Fredrickson, and UW–Madison graduate Samuel Zelinka — now a researcher at the USDA's Forest Products Laboratory in Madison — are among just 94 recipients of Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers.

The Early Career Awards program was established in 1996 to encourage the development of scientists and engineers embarking on their independent careers. The directors of federal agencies that fund research select finalists for the awards, which are passed on to the White House.

"I'm honored personally, but I'm very happy for our research group," says Fredrickson, who is one of 13 scientists nominated by the Department of Energy. "We're working in an under-populated area of research — in the United States, at least. So it's nice to see the hard work of my students recognized, when they may be asking themselves, 'Who else is working on this?'"

Nominated by the Department of Defense along with 15 other winners, Arnold drew additional funds to bring his work with carbon nano-materials in new applications.

"It speaks to the fantastic support that I've received from my colleagues and the university," he says. "Both have been instrumental to the successes of my career."

Arnold has studied carbon nanotubes for, among other things, their use in electricity-generating solar cells.

"We've been doing more fundamental science so far," says Arnold, who joined the UW–Madison faculty in 2008 after earning a doctorate from Northwestern University and doing postdoctoral research at Michigan. "The Department of Defense is interested in making new light-emitting and -detecting devices from our carbon materials."

Those materials could be used to make infrared light connections between computer chips that would enable faster transmission of information than physical connections — wires, that is — allow for. He may also have the right ingredients for far more sensitive infrared detectors.

"It will allow us to push our efforts to the next level," Arnold says. "You can have all the good ideas you want, but without support like this you can't take them anywhere."

Fredrickson, who came to Madison in 2009 from the University of Stockholm and after earning his doctorate at Cornell, studies the bonds formed between metals mixed together — as in the formation of an alloy.

"Those bonds can be relatively simple, where one metal is substituted into the regular structure of another," he says. "Or there can be a hugely complex new structure, sometimes tens of thousands of molecules in an arrangement that repeats over and over."

Fredrickson's lab puts groups of elements through what they call "chemical frustration," a forced marriage of sorts.

"We watch that frustration to try to understand how the two metals chose their inter-metallic structures," he says. "If we can control that, we can create new materials tailored to special needs."

The new materials could improve hydrogen storage, aid in superconductivity and improve catalysis (controlling reactions between other compounds).

Zelinka, who earned a doctorate from UW–Madison's College of Engineering in 2009, is a research materials engineer at the Forest Products Lab. He studies the corrosion of metals in wood and the way wood reacts to water, developing quicker ways to evaluate metal fasteners coexist with new preservatives used to treat wood.

The three Madison scientists will join the rest of the Early Career Award winners for a ceremony with President Barack Obama at the White House.