July 09, 2009

SIUC researcher among elite honored by Obama

by Tim Crosby

Maria de las Mercedes Calbi

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A physics researcher at Southern Illinois University Carbondale was among a handful of promising early career scientists honored by the White House today as winners of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

María de las Mercedes Calbi, associate professor of physics in the College of Science at SIUC, was one of just 20 outstanding scholars nominated by the National Science Foundation and honored with the award today (July 9, 2009) in Washington D.C. The NSF selected Calbi from a pool of about 450 of its CAREER grant awardees, making her one of its most meritorious researchers.

The award, known as the PECASE, is the highest honor given by the U.S. government to outstanding scientists and engineers beginning their independent careers. Calbi is the first SIUC researcher in the University’s history to receive such an award.

President Obama announced the winners of this year’s PECASE award, praising them for their ingenuity and dedication.

“These extraordinarily gifted young scientists and engineers represent the best in our country,” he said. “With their talent, creativity, and dedication, I am confident that they will lead their fields in new breakthroughs and discoveries and help us use science and technology to lift up our nation and our world.”

The awards encourage innovative scientific and engineering developments while increasing public awareness of science and engineering careers. It also enhances the connections between fundamental research and national goals.

The government chooses winners based on their innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology, as well as the community service they demonstrate through scientific leadership, education and community outreach. Researchers do not apply for the awards. Instead, officials at federal agencies, such as the NSF, nominate individuals whom they feel are likely to become leaders in their fields.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy makes the final selection for PECASE winners. Calbi, along with the other winners, will be honored at White House ceremony this fall.

Calbi became eligible for the award last year after securing a $400,000 CAREER grant from NSF. The highly competitive grants are is aimed at establishing promising early career scholars by funding their innovative work and teaching. The grant supported Calbi’s work in developing theoretical models and methods for understanding how molecules and atoms gain access and bind to carbon nanotube bundles. The work has great potential in areas such as gas separation, purification and storage.

Calbi said she was surprised to win the PECASE award after previously earning the CAREER grant.

“I just felt extremely honored by this further distinction,” she said. “More than a personal achievement, I rather feel this as a collective one that involves the efforts of all of us at the physics department,” particularly Aldo Migone, professor and chair of the department. “Professor Migone has mentored and supported all of us since we were hired and is committed to secure our success in our careers.”

Migone said the PECASE recipients are the top junior scientists in the nation.

“They are selected from the best young scientists funded by the federal government. These scientists and engineers are the top of the top, and the best of the best,” he said.

John A. Koropchak, vice chancellor for research and graduate dean, emphasized that Calbi is one of just 20 researchers nationwide selected by NSF from its already prestigious list of CAREER scholars.

“The PECASE recipients are selected for theirpotentialto become leaders in academic research and education in the 21st century,” Koropchak said. “It is the highest honor bestowed by the United States government on scientists and engineers who are beginning independent careers. I believe that Dr. Calbi is the first faculty member from any institution in Illinois to win one of these in several years. It is a tremendous honor for Dr. Calbi to be selected, and it reflects highly on SIUC, the quality of our faculty, and the kinds of positive experience that they provide to our undergraduate and graduate students.”

Calbi said she was pleased SIUC was recognized by the government in awarding her the PECASE.

“Most of the past presidential awardees have been from the most prestigious institutions in the country, so I was especially pleased that NSF was also recognizing the work we do here at SIUC, where our commitment to our mission as researchers and educators is as serious and intense as in any other place,” she said. “I am really grateful to so many people that have helped and encouraged me along this career path. And that includes my mentors, my students and of course my family, my husband and kids that so many times keep me on track when things are not going so well.”

The NSF PECASE winners are based throughout the country in a variety of disciplines, including biological sciences, computer and information science and engineering, education and human resources, engineering, geosciences, mathematical and physical sciences and social, behavioral and economic sciences. While NSF nominates 20 researchers for the award, the government awards the PECASE to 100 researchers overall, as nominated by other government agencies.