RU-N Chemist Wins Prestigious NSF Early CAREER Award

by: Lawrence Lerner

June 26, 2017

Another rising star from the ranks of Rutgers University–Newark scientists has taken home the prestigious Early CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation.

Assistant Professor Michele Pavanello, a Theoretical Chemist, was awarded $600K over five years to continue developing advanced software that models complex chemical materials and processes.

Pavanello and his team have been working on open-source code for simulations that provide valuable and often critical insight into the structure and properties of materials and molecules. Computer modeling enables chemists to design and characterize novel and yet-to-be-discovered materials, such as improved solar cells, and biosystems, like new pharmaceutical agents, without performing costly lab experiments. Simulations can also provide details not provided by experiments alone.

The NSF Early CAREER Awards are highly competitive. The Foundation gives out only three grants per year in Pavanello’s category—Chemical Theory, Models and Computational Methods—and they’re longer-than-average.

“Grants that run for five years are rare. So, this is like five years of oxygen that will allow me to hire more great people and focus on the work ahead,” says Pavanello.

Pavanello’s grant proposal included an educational outreach component. For him, this will mean continuing a series of “hackathons” he’s been running since 2014.

The events typically draw professors and Ph.D. students from Rutgers and other universities to a remote location to code together for up to a week at a time. Pavanello ran one in 2014, 2015 and 2017, and he says the format has been very effective for tackling challenging, large-scale work such as his.

He’ll continue these and recruit more undergraduates to participate as part of the NSF grant. To that end, on November 6, 2017, he and other professors are organizing a research-computing event at RU-N.

“The hackathons are collaborative and multi-disciplinary,” says Pavanello. “The idea is to bring together advanced and beginning software developers and have them exchange ideas right there, away from regular life. They’re ideal teaching and learning opportunities.”

The NSF’s Early CAREER Award is given to junior faculty around the country who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellence in teaching, and successful integration of the two. NSF encourages submission of CAREER proposals from junior faculty members and especially encourages women, members of underrepresented minority groups, and persons with disabilities to apply. Each year, NSF then selects nominees for the Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) from CAREER Award winners.

Pavanello appreciates the vote of confidence from the NSF.

“It feels great that my research community has trusted me and provided me with resources to continue this important work,” says Pavanello. “I am very grateful.”

 

Photo (by Lawrence Lerner):
Professor Michele Pavanello (in royal blue sweater, second from right) with members of his working group