Maria Goeppert Mayer with colleagues outside of the physics building at Argonne National Laboratory, circa 1946. Argonne physicists still conduct groundbreaking research in the same building.
Maria Goeppert Mayer with colleagues outside of the physics building at Argonne National Laboratory, circa 1946. Argonne physicists still conduct groundbreaking research in the same building.
Argonne National Laboratory

Editor's note: this article was originally published on Argonne National Laboratory's website.

Maria Goeppert Mayer is one of only four women to win the Nobel Prize in physics. She was a trailblazer in her field and a pioneer for women in science.

Her prize was a result of nuclear physics research conducted at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory beginning in the 1940s. Today, on her 115th birthday, Argonne announces the award of its 2022 Maria Goeppert Mayer Fellowship to four outstanding doctoral scientists who are at early points in their promising careers.

In 1930, Mayer received her doctorate from the University of Göttingen in Germany. She originally studied mathematics, but switched to physics after attending a seminar on quantum physics taught by physicist Max Born. Mayer described the newly emerging field as ​“young and exciting.”

After earning her Ph.D., Mayer married chemist Joseph Edward Mayer, and the two moved to the United States.

Mayer faced significant challenges as a woman in physics. While her husband worked as an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University, regulations prohibited Mayer from working at the same university. Instead, she instructed physics courses at Johns Hopkins without a salary. 

For 12 years, she worked alongside many of the most influential physicists of her time before receiving her first part-time paid position at Sarah Lawrence College in 1941. With two children, she was one of the first women to balance an incredibly successful career in physics with the responsibilities of marriage and motherhood, a feat almost unheard of at this time, and still a challenge today.

In 1946, Mayer and her husband moved to Chicago, where she worked as an associate physics professor at the University of Chicago’s Institute for Nuclear Studies — again with no salary. That same year, the University opened the doors to Argonne National Laboratory, the first U.S. national laboratory, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. Mayer immediately joined the new laboratory in a part-time, paid position as a senior physicist in the Theoretical Physics division. It was in these two positions that Mayer began her work in nuclear physics for which she would win the Nobel Prize.

It was known at the time that when nuclei contain certain numbers of protons and neutrons, called magic numbers, they are extremely stable, and therefore abundant in the universe. To explain this phenomenon, Mayer and her colleague J. Hans D. Jensen theorized that a stable nucleus is like a series of closed shells.

For their work on this nuclear shell model, Mayer and Jensen received the Nobel Prize in physics in 1963. Her model remains a cornerstone of modern nuclear physics, setting the course for present nuclear physics research.

Today, Argonne announced its 2022 Maria Goeppert Mayer Fellows; they are Nina Andrejevic, Shintaro Iwasaki, Tomas Polakovic and Leslie Rogers. They each display incredible promise in their fields, and they’ll be working alongside some of Argonne’s most accomplished scientists to conduct game-changing research in the coming years.

“Congratulations to this year’s fellows who follow in the footsteps of Argonne’s Nobel Laureate Maria Goeppert Mayer,” said Argonne Laboratory Director Paul Kearns. ​“It is a privilege to engage with the next generation of great thinkers at Argonne. These fellows exemplify the exceptional early-career scientists who will unlock new frontiers for America’s energy future. I look forward to seeing their contributions to Argonne and its capabilities.”

Nina Andrejevic

Scientists use X-ray and neutron scattering techniques to gain insight into the structure and behavior of novel materials, including materials for microelectronics and quantum computing. Machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) can help speed up data analysis and provide scientists with additional insights to better understand material systems.

During her fellowship, Nina Andrejevic will design and implement physics-guided AI/ML models for intelligent analysis. The new models will wield both the power of AI and the insight of current physical models of materials to clue scientists into hidden behavior that current theories don’t predict, and even refine experiments while they take place.

“Nina brings unique expertise in physics-aware AI, which will help develop the next generation of AI-driven scientific tools at two of Argonne’s DOE national scientific user facilities, the Advanced Photon Source and the Center for Nanoscale Materials,” said Mathew Cherukara, Andrejevic’s co-sponsor and group leader at the Advanced Photon Source (APS).

“Nina has a track record of innovative research at the intersection of quantum materials, X-ray and neutron scattering, and machine learning,” said Center for Nanoscale Materials (CNM) scientist Maria Chan, Andrejevic’s second co-sponsor. ​“We are excited about her upcoming contributions to the Argonne materials characterization community and beyond.”

Andrejevic is a materials science and engineering Ph.D. student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“It is important to draw attention to historical women in physics like Maria Goeppert Mayer,” said Andrejevic, ​“especially in my field, where women are underrepresented.” Andrejevic noted that women in her field have played a significant role in her life and career, specifically her twin sister, who is also a Ph.D. student in physics.

Shintaro Iwasaki

The power of exascale computers — those that can perform a billion billion calculations per second — presents unprecedented opportunities for science and industry, but their size and complexity require new computational approaches to fully realize their potential.

Shintaro Iwasaki is leading the development of Argobots, a lightweight runtime system that can accelerate AI training by managing and scheduling tasks to take advantage of entire exascale machines. The Argobots software is currently used for scientific computing, but Iwasaki is extending its use to AI applications for Aurora, Argonne’s forthcoming exascale supercomputer, set to arrive in 2022.

“Shintaro’s research offers innovative ways to harness the massive parallel architecture of next generation supercomputers,” said Yanfei Guo, a computer scientist in Argonne’s Mathematics and Computer Science division and Iwasaki’s sponsor. ​“It is being adopted by not only the scientific computing community but also leading companies in high-performance computing. It will be used to accelerate diverse workloads, from scientific applications to emerging machine learning tasks.”

“The fellowship is an exciting opportunity to contribute to the scientific community,” said Iwasaki, who is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Argonne and received his Ph.D. in high-performance computing from the University of Tokyo.

Tomas Polakovic

Quantum sensors exploit quantum mechanical behavior in materials to measure miniscule variations in systems. Tomas Polakovic is repurposing them for applications in particle detectors, specifically the forthcoming Electron Ion Collider.

The novel detectors could be a game-changer for the field of nuclear physics. Polakovic is specifically focusing on superconducting nanowire sensors, which operate in cryogenic conditions; detect particles at high rates and track them at small scales in time and space; and handle stronger magnetic fields than current detectors. 

Polakovic received his Ph.D. in physics at Drexel University and is currently a postdoctoral appointee in Argonne’s Physics division. His research will be part of a collaborative effort among CNM, APS, multiple divisions at Argonne, and other national laboratories.

“As an expert in superconductivity and superconducting sensors, Tomas has the rare opportunity to lead the development of an entirely new particle detector technology with multiple high-impact applications in nuclear physics,” said assistant physicist Whitney Armstrong, Polakovic’s sponsor.

“These detectors open possibilities for measurements that currently cannot be done,” said Polakovic. ​“The fellowship is an opportunity to accelerate technological advances in physics to answer long-held questions, like determining the origin of proton mass.”

Leslie Rogers

Neutrinoless double beta decay is a rare — and so far unobserved — radioactive decay that would indicate that the neutrino, a fundamental particle, is its own antiparticle. This would help explain big questions about the universe, such as why there is so much more matter than antimatter.

Leslie Rogers is a hardware pioneer for neutrinoless double beta decay searches, producing novel designs for the NEXT-100 experiment to be run in Spain, but designed and built in large part by Argonne. 

The limiting factor in the neutrinoless double beta decay search is the amount of background interactions that look like a signal, but aren’t. ​“Roger’s research at Argonne will involve building a prototype detector capable of background-free neutrinoless double beta decay searches,” said Rogers’ sponsor Corey Adams, an assistant computer scientist at the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility (ALCF) and a member of the Medium Energy group in Argonne’s Physics division.

Rogers has a background in engineering and has worked in industry, and she is now earning her Ph.D. in Physics at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Nobel physicist Mayer was the first to theorize ordinary double beta decay, which has now been observed. Her work laid the foundation for the work of particle physicists like Rogers looking for neutrinoless double beta decay.

“I’ve actually read Maria’s papers for my own research and understanding,” said Rogers. ​“You have to understand the basic decay before you can search for something even more special. She was a pioneer in my field, and it means a lot to receive this fellowship under her name.”

The first two years of the fellowship are funded by Argonne’s Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) Program. The third year is funded equally by LDRD and other programs identified by the fellow and sponsor.

The ALCF, CNM and APS are DOE Office of Science User Facilities.