Two NMT Faculty Win Prestigious NSF CAREER Award  

March 10, 2021

Chelsey Hargather and Caitano da Silva land top NSF awards to fund five-year projects



SOCORRO, N.M. – Two NMT faculty members have received a top National Science Foundation award for their research. Dr. Caitano L. da Silva of the Physics Department and Dr. Chelsey Hargather of the Materials Engineering Department have received the highly competitive NSF CAREER award.

The National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development award is the NSF’s most prestigious award given to junior faculty with the potential to serve as academic role models in research, education, their integration, and to lead advances in the mission of their department, organization, and research field.

Chelsey Hargather and Caitano da SilvaDr. da Silva’s award addresses the physics of lightning including its propagation and connection to ground structures. His project is titled “Self-consistent and Data-constrained Simulations of the Leader and Return Stroke Processes in Lightning Discharges.”

(Pictured at right are Dr. Chelsey Hargather and Dr. Caitano da Silva.)

Dr. Hargather’s project focuses on high-entropy alloys, relatively new materials that show great potential in a wide range of engineering applications. Her project is titled “An Efficient First-Principles Method for Calculating Deformation Properties, Diffusivity, and Secondary Creep-Rate Behavior in BCC High-Entropy Alloys.”

Only three NMT professors have received this award: Dr. Paul Fuierer in 1997, Dr. Baolin Deng in 2001, and Dr. Alexander Gysi, who transferred this award from his former institution in 2020. In other words, these are the first successful CAREER proposals fully conceived at NMT in more than 20 years. Hargather and da Silva both said their projects have the potential to have a large impact on the NMT community via their integrated educational and research goals.

Dr. Caitano da Silva, Physics

Dr. da Silva’s award is $523,000 in research funds to support undergraduate and graduate student research at NMT. da Silva plans to advance the current understanding of lightning physics by combining novel computational simulation tools with the wealth of data collected every summer at NMT’s Langmuir Laboratory for Atmospheric Research. The project also has the objective of teaching the science of lightning and thunderstorms to students at different levels, from high-school, to college, to graduate level.

“I was shocked,” da Silva said. “I did not believe it at first. It took me a while to make peace with the idea. It’s a highly competitive award and typically faculty that receive it, are awarded on their second or third try — I was lucky enough to have been awarded on my first. I think this will give good visibility to the type of research we do here and hopefully attract highly-motivated students to NMT.”

His award is “Self-consistent and Data-constrained Simulations of the Leader and Return Stroke Processes in Lightning Discharges.”

A large portion of lightning’s fundamental physics remains to be uncovered. Even its most studied element – the return stroke – remains to be fully quantified. da Silva will address a central question in lightning physics: how the widely-observed asymmetry in positive- and negative-leader propagation maps into the overall contrasting differences between cloud-to-ground (CG) flashes of both positive and negative polarities.

Understanding the physics of lightning at a fundamental level is required for quantifying its effects in our planet's atmosphere, such as the production of nitrogen oxide compounds, and to mitigate its societal impacts, such as power transmission and distribution disruptions.

Dr. da Silva will hire at least two graduate students and an undergraduate on this project. They will develop novel computer models to address outstanding questions in lightning physics.

The broader impacts of this project are heavily tied with the educational plan. While this Career Award is research-centric, da Silva emphasizes the educational and outreach component. He said the backbone of the educational plan is to develop teaching strategies based on the simple idea that physics instructors can use lightning and thunderstorms – something that all student are familiar with – to introduce complex physics concepts.

At NMT, he will develop courses on “The Physics of Lightning” to be taught at several different levels – from undergraduate to graduate level. Additionally, he is developing outreach presentations that can be delivered at high schools across New Mexico, hopefully serving as a strong recruitment tool as well.

The research component of the project tackles two key problems in lightning physics. First, when leader channels connect to a ground structure, a strong current surge known as the return stroke travels upward. Secondly, positive and negative leaders have different propagation mechanisms. The main goal of this project is to advance the current understand of lightning by introducing two novel physics-based models to describe the aforementioned main stages of a lightning flash.

Dr. Chelsey Hargather, Materials Engineering

Dr. Chelsey Hargather won a five-year $520,000 award. Her project is “An Efficient First-Principles Method for Calculating Deformation Properties, Diffusivity, and Secondary Creep-Rate Behavior in BCC High-Entropy Alloys.”

This project is jointly funded by the Condensed-Matter-and-Materials-Theory program in the Division of Materials Research and by the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR).

Hargather’s CAREER award will support research into the fundamental failure mechanisms in a new class of engineering alloys called high-entropy alloys (HEAs).

HEAs are a relatively new class of engineering materials that show significant promise for replacing traditional engineering alloys, such as steel, in high temperature and load-bearing applications. HEAs are unique because they are typically composed of five elements in roughly equal proportions, whereas a traditional alloy such as steel has one base element – iron, which makes up at least 95 percent of the composition.

Hargather’s computational research will determining properties of HEAs using physics simulations, based on density functional theory. These calculations are challenging because of the large computational resources required to handle the multiple elements and atomic configurations of HEAs.

Hargather’s funding will cover at least one graduate student and at least one undergrad.

She currently has a supercomputer cluster of five nodes and 160 cores on campus at the NMT Data Center. This grant will fund 64 more cores, expanding her computing power by 40 percent.

Hargather said she did preliminary calculations on an NSF supercomputer and previously wrote this proposal based on work from one of the NSF clusters.

Hargather said she was shocked and elated to hear that she was selected to receive the CAREER Award.

“In the past 25 years, only two people at NMT have received one,” she said. “It’s such an honor and recognition of the hard work that I’ve done that the NSF found this research worthy of being funded.”

Hargather applied for the CAREER Award the previous year as well. She said she took all the reviewer’s comments seriously and volunteered to review proposals at NSF to be better prepared for a second application.

“I really put in my time to improve my proposal,” she said “It paid off, and I am looking forward to the opportunities this award is bringing to NMT, especially involving graduate and undergraduate students on this research.”

Hargather and her team will investigate “creep failure” in high-entropy alloys, which is the time-dependent and permanent deformation of a material under applied load or stress. A fundamental understanding of creep failure in these materials could potentially allow HEAs to replace traditional engineering alloys. High-entropy alloys have a vast range of potential applications – from gas turbines to nuclear reactors, to medical implants, and everything in between. Hargather’s team will add important knowledge about how high-entropy alloys resist creep failure.

Hargather’s project also includes an education plan. She will develop a series of workshops for first-year, first-semester students that will be added into the mentoring program at New Mexico Tech. These workshops will be delivered by faculty and will provide students with a toolbox of techniques useful in an undergraduate research setting. Participating students will be offered a small scholarship to use as consumable laboratory supplies in a faculty member's research laboratory.

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