Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

July 22, 2020

Photo of Federica Coppari and Erin NuccioFederica Coppari (left) and Erin Nuccio are recipients of the DOE Office of Science Early Career Research Program award.

LLNL physicist Federica Coppari, whose work on large laser facilities like NIF and Omega helped lead to the discovery of the atomic structure of superionic ice, was one of two Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) scientists honored with the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science Early Career Research Program award.

Coppari and microbiologist Erin Nuccio were among 76 scientists nationwide selected for the recognition. Under the program, typical awards for DOE national laboratory staff are $500,000 per year for five years.

A research scientist in the High Energy Density section of the Physics and Life Sciences Directorate (PLS), Coppari was nominated by the Office of Science’s Fusion Energy Sciences program for developing new experimental platforms to understand material behavior at extreme pressures and temperatures.

“I’m really excited about my project being selected for this award,” she said. “It is such an honor to receive this prestigious recognition and I look forward to the new research this award will enable.”

Coppari joined the Lab in 2011 as a postdoctoral researcher and works on developing new experimental platforms to understand material behavior at extreme conditions and, in particular, the physics of phase transitions, melting, and material equations of state.

Giant lasers can compress and heat matter to extreme states. When combined with bright x-ray sources, they become very powerful tools to investigate the atomic-level structural changes induced by strong and ultra-fast compression.

Photo of Federica Coppari Holding Diffraction Image PlateFederica Coppari with an x-ray diffraction image plate used to discover superionic ice. Credit: Eugene Kowaluk/Laboratory for Laser Energetics

Coppari’s experiments are conducted in facilities such as NIF, the Omega Laser Facility at the University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics (LLE), and synchrotrons, using ultra-fast x-ray diffraction and extended x-ray absorption fine structure diagnostics to characterize materials’ properties at extreme conditions.

Coppari is the co-leader of a team of scientists that last year presented the first experimental evidence of an exotic state of matter called superionic ice (see “Research Reveals Atomic Structure of Superionic Ice”).

Coppari was also named a New Leader in Space Science by the U.S. and Chinese academies of sciences for her contributions to planetary science research.

Coppari plans to use the DOE funding to understand mixing and metastability in warm dense matter with an emphasis on planetary constituent materials.

“Matter deep inside planets is at extreme pressures and temperatures and knowledge of its properties is key to improve our understanding of planetary formation and interior structure,” she said. “In particular, how the different constituents mix (or unmix) when subjected to extreme conditions is extremely important, although far from being understood.

“Pulling together ultra-fast compression and x-ray and optical diagnostics, this research will investigate the transformations happening at extreme conditions of pressure, temperature, and timescale in complex, multi-component systems to obtain a better understanding of their mixing properties and their pathways to phase transitions,” she said.

The Role of Microbes

Nuccio, a microbiologist, was selected for her research in fundamental systems biology. A staff scientist in the Nuclear and Chemical Sciences Division of PLS, Nuccio was nominated in the Biological and Environmental Research category for her work studying the role of microbes in bio-geochemical cycling processes using a systems biology approach.

“I’m blown away,” Nuccio said. “It’s an incredible honor to be selected for this award. The national labs have so many talented early career scientists. This award is a game-changer for building my research career at LLNL.”

Nuccio started as a postdoc at LLNL in 2013 studying plant-microbe interactions and became a staff scientist in 2016. She studies how microbes control carbon and nutrient cycling in soil and focuses on the zones surrounding plant roots and fungal hyphae (known as the rhizosphere and hyphosphere). She uses stable isotopes as a way to track interactions and nutrient exchanges in the notoriously complex soil environment.

“Throughout my career, I have been keenly interested in the fundamental ecology of plant-microbe-soil interactions, and the role these tripartite relationships play in terrestrial carbon cycling and ecosystem sustainability,” she said.

“Microbes engage in a lively ‘cross-talk’ that we are only beginning to understand through next-generation sequencing and metabolomics technologies. I’m excited to dig deeper into the fungal hyphosphere, which is an active site of soil nutrient cycling that we know little about and is a hotspot for fungal-bacterial interactions. For fungi that don’t have the ability to decompose plant material by themselves, this is a key zone for nutrient foraging; I expect fungal interactions with the microbial community to be of paramount importance in this region,” Nuccio said.

The Early Career Research Program, now in its 11th year, is designed to bolster the nation’s scientific workforce by providing support to exceptional researchers during crucial early career years, when many scientists do their most formative work.

"The Department of Energy is proud to support funding that will sustain America's scientific workforce and create opportunities for our researchers to remain competitive on the world stage," said DOE Under Secretary for Science Paul Dabbar. "By bolstering our commitment to the scientific community, we invest into our nation's next generation of innovators."

To be eligible for the DOE award, a researcher must be a tenure-track assistant or associate professor at a U.S. academic institution or a full-time employee at a DOE national laboratory. The researcher also must have received a Ph.D. within the past 10 years. Research topics are required to fall within one of the Office of Science's six major program offices:

  • Advanced Scientific Computing Research
  • Basic Energy Sciences
  • Biological and Environmental Research
  • Fusion Energy Sciences
  • High Energy Physics
  • Nuclear Physics

Awardees were selected from a large pool of university and national laboratory-based applicants. Selection was based on peer review by outside scientific experts.

—Anne M. Stark

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