Newswise — 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 three 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, 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 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 sponsor. “We are excited about her upcoming contributions to the Argonne materials characterization community and beyond.”

“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).

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.


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

Neutrino less 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.

About Argonne’s Center for Nanoscale Materials
The Center for Nanoscale Materials is one of the five DOE Nanoscale Science Research Centers, premier national user facilities for interdisciplinary research at the nanoscale supported by the DOE Office of Science. Together the NSRCs comprise a suite of complementary facilities that provide researchers with state-of-the-art capabilities to fabricate, process, characterize and model nanoscale materials, and constitute the largest infrastructure investment of the National Nanotechnology Initiative. The NSRCs are located at DOE’s Argonne, Brookhaven, Lawrence Berkeley, Oak Ridge, Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratories. For more information about the DOE NSRCs, please visit https://​sci​ence​.osti​.gov/​U​s​e​r​-​F​a​c​i​l​i​t​i​e​s​/​U​s​e​r​-​F​a​c​i​l​i​t​i​e​s​-​a​t​-​a​-​G​lance.

The Argonne Leadership Computing Facility provides supercomputing capabilities to the scientific and engineering community to advance fundamental discovery and understanding in a broad range of disciplines. Supported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science, Advanced Scientific Computing Research (ASCR) program, the ALCF is one of two DOE Leadership Computing Facilities in the nation dedicated to open science.

About the Advanced Photon Source

The U. S. Department of Energy Office of Science’s Advanced Photon Source (APS) at Argonne National Laboratory is one of the world’s most productive X-ray light source facilities. The APS provides high-brightness X-ray beams to a diverse community of researchers in materials science, chemistry, condensed matter physics, the life and environmental sciences, and applied research. These X-rays are ideally suited for explorations of materials and biological structures; elemental distribution; chemical, magnetic, electronic states; and a wide range of technologically important engineering systems from batteries to fuel injector sprays, all of which are the foundations of our nation’s economic, technological, and physical well-being. Each year, more than 5,000 researchers use the APS to produce over 2,000 publications detailing impactful discoveries, and solve more vital biological protein structures than users of any other X-ray light source research facility. APS scientists and engineers innovate technology that is at the heart of advancing accelerator and light-source operations. This includes the insertion devices that produce extreme-brightness X-rays prized by researchers, lenses that focus the X-rays down to a few nanometers, instrumentation that maximizes the way the X-rays interact with samples being studied, and software that gathers and manages the massive quantity of data resulting from discovery research at the APS.

This research used resources of the Advanced Photon Source, a U.S. DOE Office of Science User Facility operated for the DOE Office of Science by Argonne National Laboratory under Contract No. DE-AC02-06CH11357.

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://​ener​gy​.gov/​s​c​ience.