Rachel Segalman in her lab. (Elena Zhukova)
When her phone rang and the caller ID said “DOE,” Rachel Segalman’s interest was instantly piqued. His nerves too. Professor Edward Noble Kramer and chairman of the chemical engineering department at UC Santa Barbara was waiting to hear about a proposal for the energy department.
“I answered the call with concern,” Segalman said. When the person on the other end of the line said, “Professor Segalman? she answered “Yes,” but was a little hesitant, she said, because her program managers aren’t usually that formal.
The caller introduced himself: “It’s Secretary Granholm.” That would be Jennifer Granholm, secretary of energy and head of the DOE.
“I was a bit speechless,” Segalman recalled. “What do you say in response to a phone call from a Cabinet Secretary?”
It wasn’t about his proposal. Granholm was calling to tell Segalman that she was the recipient of the 2021 Ernest Orlando Lawrence Award in Condensed Matter and Materials Science, the DOE’s highest scientific honor.
The Lawrence Award honors mid-career American scientists and engineers for their outstanding contributions and achievements in research and development supporting the broad missions of the DOE and its programs.
Segalman was cited for “significant contributions in fundamental materials science and engineering to self-assembly and structure-property relationships in functional polymer systems, with specific applications in photovoltaic, thermoelectric, and membrane technologies”.
“All I could think about during the call was how this was the award that many versatile scientists and leaders I looked up to as a young scientist had won,” Segalman said, referring to Paul Alivisatos. (2006), Alex Pines (1988), Arup Chakraborty (2006) and Carolyn Bertozzi (2014).
“The attribute that unites all previous recipients is that they are great scientists who have identified and made a significant impact on fundamental scientific problems with critical energy consequences. They are also generous and insightful mentors and educators. As a result, for me, receiving this honor comes with a tremendous sense of accomplishment and responsibility,” she said.
With particular interests in energy, efficiency, sustainability, and materials and interfaces, Segalman’s research focuses on controlling the self-assembly, structure, and properties of functional polymers. Structural control of soft matter through microscopic length scales is an essential tool for optimizing properties in applications ranging from solar and thermal energy to biomaterials.
His work paves the way for the development of sophisticated materials for energy applications such as photovoltaics, fuel cells and thermoelectricity.
“Rachel Segalman has been at the forefront of materials and chemical engineering, making major contributions to our general knowledge of block polymers and hybrid thermoelectric materials,” said Tresa Pollock, acting dean of engineering and professor ALCOA emeritus of materials.
“We are extremely proud that the Department of Energy has recognized the impact and importance of Professor Segalman’s research, and we are delighted to extend our heartfelt congratulations to him,” Pollock said.
The Lawrence Prize was established in 1959 to honor the memory of the late Ernest Orlando Lawrence, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1939 for inventing the cyclotron, a particle accelerator, and after whom two DOE National Laboratories, the one in Berkeley and the other in Livermore, are appointed.
Segalman has close ties to both labs. She began her career with a cross appointment as Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering at UC Berkeley and as a Science Professor in the Materials Science Division of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBL). As she rose through the ranks at Berkeley, she was deeply engaged both on campus and in the labs.
“My senior year at LBL, I was director of the Materials Science Division and I had a picture of Lawrence in my office,” recalls Segalman, elected member of the National Academy of Engineering and fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Physical Society. “He was absolutely soaked in the fabric of the lab.”
In addition to Segalman’s selection in Condensed Matter and Materials Sciences, the DOE selected nine scientists and engineers in eight other categories: Atomic, Molecular, and Chemical Sciences; biological and environmental sciences; informatics, information and knowledge sciences; energy science and innovation; fusion and plasma sciences; high energy physics; national security and non-proliferation; and nuclear physics.
“I am thrilled to recognize these researchers and the significant advances they have made to society,” said Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, director of the DOE Office of Science. “Scientists like these people are the backbone of the DOE, and we cannot accomplish our mission without them. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for them and where they might take us.
Lawrence Prize winners receive a citation signed by the Secretary of Energy, a gold-plated medal bearing the likeness of Ernest O. Lawrence, and an honorarium. The 10 winners will be honored on September 22 at a hybrid awards ceremony in Washington, D.C.