Michele Pavanello, a professor of Chemistry and Physics at Rutgers University–Newark, has been amassing awards since he first arrived on campus in 2012, after doing a Marie Curie post-doctoral fellowship in the Netherlands. He recently was honored again, this time with the American Chemical Society (ACS) Early Career Award in Theoretical Chemistry.
ACS’ Physical Chemistry Division presents this prestigious honor annually to one faculty member from around the globe who is in the first 10 years of their career as an independent researcher, following their postdoctoral research if applicable. The award is the second Early Career award for Pavanello, the first coming in 2016 from the National Science Foundation (NSF).
“I could not believe I was awarded such a prestigious honor,” said Pavanello. “Awardees are typically from high-profile universities such as UCLA and Stanford, and I can tell you my biggest satisfaction was to see Rutgers University–Newark among the affiliations of the awardees.”
Pavanello, whose expertise is in Computational and Theoretical Physics as well as Theoretical Chemistry, leads the Pavanello Research Group at RU-N, which specializes in the development of electronic structure methods based on Density-Functional Theory. The group uses various methods to computationally model an array of phenomena relevant to chemistry and materials research, with emphasis on molecular condensed phases, dynamics of charge and electronic excitation energy across material's interfaces and biosystems.
The ACS selection committee gave Pavanello the award, it said, “for the development of novel methods to accelerate calculations for large systems composed of weakly interacting subsystems, such as the molecules in liquid water.”
Those calculations, and the software used to conduct them, were also at the heart of the NSF Early Career Award presented to Pavanello five years ago, which came with $600K of funding over five years. At the time, he and his team had 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.
I have been so blessed to receive encouragement from my scientific community and Rutgers over the years.
The open-source code has been developed, in part, via NSF-supported “hackathons” that Pavanello has 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. He says the format has been very effective for tackling challenging, large-scale work such as his.
“Hackathons are really important for us because they are ‘code factories’ where the bulk of our code is developed,” said Pavanello. “Without strong software development, the chemical models that we develop would be useless, and Hackathons bring our group together with groups from other universities to strengthen my students' network and improve their coding skills.”
Pavanello’s research has been funded over the years not only by NSF but also the U.S. Department of Education and ACS’ Petroleum Research Fund (PRF).
For both his scholarship and teaching, Pavanello also has received the Rutgers Board of Trustees Award for Excellence in Research (2020), the Rutgers Board of Trustees Research Fellowship for Scholarly Excellence (2018), the ACS OpenEye Junior Faculty Award (2016), and the ACS PRF Award (2014). In addition, Pavanello played a key role in the development of a high-performance computing cluster at RU-N, which has boosted the scale and speed of RU-N researchers’ work exponentially across a variety of disciplines, including Psychology, Chemistry, Physics, Biology, and the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience (CMBN).
Along the way, Pavanello has focused on building a community among his undergraduate students, his lab colleagues, through his hackathons and other educational initiatives, and among his faculty peers, all while striving to keep things fun.
“My office door is always open for anyone to jump in and chat about science or anything really,” said Pavanello. “In my lab we have chess sets and a conference table that can be used as a ping-pong table. In the summer we are typically joined by visitors from Europe and high-school students from nearby school districts. So, a variety of ages and nationalities are represented. Anyone is invited to visit us in Smith 511 anytime. In my group we like to have fun and work hard. The two are not mutually exclusive.”
Pavanello is also grateful for the support that’s been reciprocated by the very community he’s worked so hard to nurture.
“I have been so blessed to receive encouragement from my scientific community and Rutgers over the years,” said Pavanello. “Receiving the ACS COMP Junior Faculty Award and the NSF CAREER back in 2016 gave me a big boost of confidence to continue to work hard. With this boost of confidence, now I feel I can dare more, that I can try some new and high-risk ideas. Let's see what happens.”