Sandia Labs News Releases

White House honors four early-career Sandia researchers

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Sandia researchers Matthew Brake, Adrian Chavez, Seth Root and Daniel Stick have been named by President Barack Obama as recipients of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). The PECASE is the highest honor the U.S. government gives outstanding scientists and engineers who are beginning their careers.

“I want to congratulate Matt Brake, Adrian Chavez, Seth Root, and Dan Stick for their achievements that led to this prestigious award. The Department of Energy (DOE) national laboratories are home to an impressive number of innovative and talented researchers. And I am particularly pleased about the external recognition of the people of Sandia for the quality of the science and technology they conduct in service of the nation,” said Sandia President and Laboratories Director Paul Hommert.

Sandia researchers, left to right, Adrian Chavez, Matthew Brake, Seth Root and Daniel Stick will be recognized in a ceremony later this year as recipients of the Presidential Early Career Award for Science and Engineering. The award is the highest honor the US government gives to outstanding scientists and engineers beginning their careers. (Photo by Randy Montoya) Click on the thumbnail for a high-resolution image.

With four honorees each, Sandia and Princeton University tied for the most PECASE recipients among the 102 researchers recognized this year. All recipients were either funded by or employed by 13 federal agencies, including the DOE. Winners will be recognized later this year at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., for their work in advancing the nation’s science and engineering.

Brake, a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University’s mechanical engineering program, joined Sandia in early 2008 after earning his doctorate. One aspect of his work focuses on understanding interfacial mechanics, or how two objects interact when they impact and rebound. “You want to be able to predict how a joint will perform in different shock environments. You could build a mesh and have thousands and thousands of degrees of freedom, but in order to simulate that with the necessary number of elements to get convergence for your contact models, it’s going to be prohibitively expensive. There’s no way to actually do that in a feasible amount of time and get the correct answer,” Brake said. “So the whole philosophy behind this modeling effort is rather than having the extremely large number of elements needed to get convergence, why don’t we use a coarse mesh, but represent the contacts with very high fidelity, so we can very quickly and accurately do these simulations of how a strong link will respond in different environments.” Shrinking the models means a researcher can understand in a few days on a desktop computer the mechanics that would have taken years to model on a supercomputer.

Brake is currently studying friction and energy dissipation between two bodies and has become part of the global community of joints researchers, taking on several leadership positions. Brake is secretary for a research committee within the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and is organizing the 2014 Sandia Nonlinear Mechanics and Dynamics Summer Research Institute, which will bring researchers from around the world to Sandia to study some of the biggest challenges of predicting the behavior of jointed structures.

Chavez, an Albuquerque native, started at Sandia in 2000 as an intern in the Center for Cyber Defenders while a student at the University of New Mexico. He spent four years there learning about computer security. In 2004, he took advantage of Sandia’s Master’s Fellowship Program to pursue his master’s degree at the University of Colorado-Boulder and returned to Sandia in 2006. Since then, he has focused on cybersecurity for critical infrastructure and how best to add security to systems like the power grid, oil and gas refineries and water pipelines to make sure they can protect themselves in the event of a cyber attack. Chavez has worked on several projects to secure such systems. “The vision of each project is to secure the hardware and software of critical infrastructure systems that harness our nation’s most critical assets. My research focuses on retrofitting new security protections into an architecture that supports both the legacy and modern devices,” Chavez said. “Protections that were previously unavailable in these systems include end-to-end cryptographically secure communications, secure engineering access and built-in situational awareness.”

Building on that model, Chavez and his team are now working on randomizing networks, essentially turning computer networks into moving targets, making it more difficult for an adversary to locate and attack a specific system.

“I am honored to receive this award. It’s great to have all of the excellent research we perform at Sandia be recognized at such a high level,” Chavez said. He is currently working on his doctorate in computer science at the University of California-Davis and is interested in continuing research to help secure critical infrastructure systems.

Root earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics at the University of Nebraska and his doctorate in physics from the Institute of Shock Physics at Washington State University. Root joined Sandia in 2008 for the opportunity to work on the Z machine, the world’s largest pulsed-power facility. “You are working on a platform that can generate pressure and temperature regimes that are accessible almost nowhere else to understand material behavior at extreme conditions,” he said. “The opportunity to do research at extreme conditions at a facility like Z is really exciting.”

Root’s team combines theoretical and experimental methods and applies density functional theory, a method of calculating energies and pressures using quantum mechanics, to noble gases — which are odorless, colorless, and chemically inert under standard conditions — at extreme pressures and high temperatures. In one experiment, the physicists cryogenically cooled xenon gas to a liquid and then shock-compressed it to 8 million atmospheres of pressure. “We were able to show that density-functional-theory simulations can capture the response of the liquid xenon at very high pressures,” Root said. The research helps explain the physics of atoms with relatively high numbers of electrons and has helped verify and improve theoretical methods used in computer simulations.

Root said the PECASE was a recognition of many people. “We have a really good team at Sandia. The award shows that the work we do in understanding material properties at high pressures is greatly appreciated on a national level,” he said.

Stick earned his undergraduate degree in physics from the California Institute of Technology and his doctorate from the University of Michigan. He was nominated for his development and demonstration of miniaturized ion traps for quantum computing. Moore’s Law predicts that about every 18 months the processing power of classical computers double but as devices shrink, they will run into fundamental physical limits at which transistors start behaving unpredictably. Quantum computing is one strategy to circumvent these limitations, but there is much to be done. “For these devices to be a viable platform for quantum information processing, they must be more reliable and engineered to eliminate particular sources of noise that make quantum computing extremely difficult,” Stick said. “Quantum computing is something that is usually talked about in terms of its promise for exceeding classical computing, but everyone realizes that the technical challenges for actually realizing such a device are extraordinary.”

Stick came to Sandia as a post-doctoral researcher in 2007 and was hired as a staff member two years later. With his background in experimental atomic physics, he worked with Sandia’s microfabrication experts to design and fabricate novel trap geometries. “My main contribution is the experimental demonstration of these traps. They’ve become really successful in that a lot of the leading ion-trapping groups around the world use Sandia-fabricated ion traps for their quantum experiments,” Stick said. “This award is a wonderful recognition, and I’m honored to receive it. There are so many people at Sandia who deserve some of the credit for this as well.”

The awards were established by President Bill Clinton in 1996 and coordinated through 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.

Sandia National Laboratories is a multi-program laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Corp., for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. With main facilities in Albuquerque, N.M., and Livermore, Calif., Sandia has major R&D responsibilities in national security, energy and environmental technologies and economic competitiveness.

Sandia news media contact: Stephanie Hobby,, (505) 844-0948