Home UVA engineering professor receives highest U.S. government honor for early career researchers

UVA engineering professor receives highest U.S. government honor for early career researchers


UVA School of Engineering Associate Professor Patrick HopkinsPresident Barack Obama announced this week that Associate Professor Patrick Hopkins of the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science will receive the highest honor the U.S. government bestows on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their research careers: the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

Hopkins, a mechanical engineer who earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees from UVA, specializes in nanoscale energy transport. Hopkins was nominated by the Office of Naval Research, part of the Department of Defense, and his award comes with a $1 million, five-year grant.

“I am not only honored, I am humbled,” Hopkins said. “Being recognized as one of the top young scientists in the country motivates me to be the best researcher I can be, and to contribute to ensuring that the University of Virginia is doing the best possible research. Because of the grant that comes with this award, we will be able to build experiments that push the limits of what people understand about heat transfer on the atomic scale.”

This is not the first time Hopkins has been singled out for outstanding achievement. After completing his doctorate at UVA, he received a Harry S. Truman Postdoctoral Fellowship to conduct research at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, NM. Subsequently, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and Office of Naval Research each presented him with Young Investigator Awards.

UVA School of Engineering Dean Craig Benson said, “Professor Hopkins is an exceptionally talented scholar whose work shows great promise for advancing our nation’s defense capabilities. He also epitomizes UVA Engineering’s historical commitment to research that addresses society’s biggest challenges. We are extraordinarily proud of him.”

Hopkins’ success reflects the UVA School of Engineering’s ability to recognize and nurture young talent.  Professor Pamela Norris, now the School’s Executive Associate Dean for Research, recognized his abilities while he was an undergraduate. She invited him into her Microscale Heat Transfer Laboratory and later directed his dissertation. “Having worked with Patrick since his undergraduate years, I have so enjoyed watching him mature into a true scholar,” Norris said.  “He is never satisfied with the status quo and relentlessly asks ‘why.’”

The research that Hopkins will conduct with his Presidential Early Career Award grant has a number of novel aspects. He is interested in the exchange of energy that occurs at the interface between different states of matter, for instance when liquids or gases encounter a solid surface. The general energy exchange mechanism is well understood, but Hopkins wants to take it a step further, discovering how to manipulate the transfer on the atomic level by accounting for surface geometry and chemistry.  This advance would open the door to new methods of maximizing energy exchange and using selective energy exchange as the basis for a new generation of sensors.

The driver behind the Office of Naval Research’s interest in this research is the Navy’s plan to convert its fleet to ships that rely on electricity for propulsion, as well as for defense, radar, and sensors. In this situation, a unified, efficient electric power source is a more flexible approach than having separate power plants for different functions.  A major obstacle to this transition is heat dissipation.

“The more circuits you have, the more heat you produce,” Hopkins said. “Creating more effective heat exchangers is critical to realizing this vision.”

Increasing the selectivity of the heat exchange and energy conversion, as well as its effectiveness, sets the stage for exquisitely sensitive power sources and sensors. In order to realize this goal, Hopkins’ work is developing a process that operates at two very different length and time scales. He intends to identify phenomena occurring at the nanoscale and picosecond—like a single molecule encountering a surface and changing its thermal and energy state—tracked over surfaces at the micrometer and millisecond scale.

“Our objective is to make a device that can identify specific molecules in the air or water at parts per billion, while harvesting their energy,” Hopkins said.  “This would provide early sensing and targeting of biological and chemical species like anthrax and sarin gas, while at the same time providing an avenue to improve the recycle of wasted energy.”

“Patrick’s research on energy transfer is at the core of critical technologies that address national and societal needs,” said Professor Eric Loth, the chair of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. “In addition, he is an excellent teacher and a celebrated scholar who strives to collaborate with students and faculty throughout the University.”

According to the White House’s press release, Hopkins was among 106 researchers President Obama named as recipients of the Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers. The winners will receive their awards at a Washington, D.C., ceremony this spring.

“These early-career scientists are leading the way in our efforts to confront and understand challenges from climate change to our health and wellness,” President Obama said in the release. “We congratulate these accomplished individuals and encourage them to continue to serve as an example of the incredible promise and ingenuity of the American people.”

The release further stated, “The Presidential Early Career Awards highlight the key role that the Administration places in encouraging and accelerating American innovation to grow the economy and tackle the country’s greatest challenges.

“This year’s recipients are employed or funded by the following departments and agencies: Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, Department of Education, Department of Energy, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of the Interior, Department of Veterans Affairs, Environmental Protection Agency, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Science Foundation, and the Intelligence Community. These departments and agencies join together annually to nominate the most meritorious scientists and engineers whose early accomplishments show the greatest promise for assuring America’s preeminence in science and engineering and contributing to the awarding agencies’ missions.

“The awards, established by President Clinton in 1996, are coordinated by the Office of Science and Technology Policy within the Executive Office of the President. Awardees are selected for their pursuit of innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology and their commitment to community service as demonstrated through scientific leadership, public education, or community outreach.”



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