Nick Jackson receives DOE award for early career scientists


The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) today announced the selection of 93 early career scientists, including Professor Nick Jackson at Illinois, who will receive a combined $135 million in funding for research covering a wide range of topics, from artificial intelligence to astrophysics to fusion energy.

The 2023 Early Career Research Program awardees represent 47 universities and 12 DOE National Laboratories across the country. These awards are a part of the DOE’s long-standing efforts to develop the next generation of STEM leaders to solidify America’s role as the driver of science and innovation around the world. 

“Supporting America’s scientists and researchers early in their careers will ensure the United States remains at the forefront of scientific discovery,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm. “The funding announced today gives the recipients the resources to find the answers to some of the most complex questions as they establish themselves as experts in their fields.”

Jackson joined the Illinois faculty in 2021 to pursue his research interests in the areas of materials and physical chemistry.

"I am very humbled by this honor and am really excited to get started on this research with my group," said Jackson, who is an Assistant Professor of Chemistry, a Lincoln Excellence for Assistant Professors (LEAP) Scholar, and an affiliate faculty member in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. 

This Early Career award will support a neuromorphic computing research project in the Jackson lab. 

Jackson said there is a lot of interest in more energy efficient computing architectures, of which neuromorphic computing (an alternative computing paradigm inspired by the structure and function of the human brain) represents one of the most promising.

"Right now, people are trying to find synthetic materials classes capable of mimicking the neuromorphic computing capabilities of the human brain, but it is a difficult task," he said.

Recently, organic mixed ionic-electronic conductors (OMIECs) have emerged as a high potential materials class to accomplish this, Jackson explained, but very little is known about their underlying structure-function relationships. And an even bigger problem, he added, is that there are no molecular modeling approaches capable of simulating these materials because the quantum mechanical calculations required are far too costly.

"The point of this proposal is to develop a new paradigm of scalable quantum mechanical calculations that will allow us to model this fascinating new class of OMIEC materials for neuromorphic computing," Jackson said.

Funding for the Early Career awards is part of the DOE Office of Science’s Early Career Research Program, which bolsters the nation’s scientific workforce by supporting exceptional researchers at the outset of their careers, when many scientists do their most formative work. Since its inception in 2010, the Early Career Research Program has made 868 awards, with 564 awards to university researchers and 304 awards to National Lab researchers. 

The 93 awards will go to scientists in 27 different states: California (14); Illinois (10); New York (8); Tennessee (7); Colorado, New Mexico, and Washington (5 each); Arizona and Massachusetts (4); New Jersey, Ohio, Texas, and Virginia (3); Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin (2); and Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Wyoming. 

Information about the 93 awardees and their research projects is available on the Early Career Research Program webpage. 

To be eligible for Early Career Research Program awards, a researcher must be an untenured, tenure-track assistant or associate professor at a U.S. academic institution or a full-time employee at a DOE National Laboratory who received a Ph.D. within the past 12 years. Research topics are required to fall within the scope of one of the Office of Science’s eight major program areas: 

  • Accelerator R&D and Production 
  • Advanced Scientific Computing Research 
  • Basic Energy Sciences 
  • Biological and Environmental Research 
  • Fusion Energy Sciences
  • High Energy Physics
  • Isotope R&D and Production
  • Nuclear Physics  

Awardees were selected based on peer review by outside scientific experts. The projects announced today are selections for negotiation of a financial award, and the final details for each are subject to final grant and contract negotiations between DOE and the awardees. 

Total funding is $135 million for projects lasting up to five years in duration, with $69 million in Fiscal Year 2023 dollars and the additional funding contingent on congressional appropriations.  

Profiles of some previous award recipients, including information about how the program helped them in their research and careers, can be found on the Early Career profiles page.