van Veenendaal of X-ray Science Division wins 2009 NIU Presidential Research Professorship

APRIL 28, 2009

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Michel van Veenendaal

One of them is probing the atomic structure of materials for potential technological breakthroughs, one is finding clues to climate change beneath the ocean depths, a third is spearheading a movement that applies evolution to human politics.

Meet the 2009 winners of Northern Illinois University’s (NIU’s) Presidential Research Professorships: Michel van Veenendaal of the NIU Department of Physics and the Argonne X-ray Science Division, Reed Scherer in the Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences, and Larry Arnhart in the Department of Political Science.

“This year’s award winners are internationally known for truly pushing the envelope in their research and scholarship,” says James Erman, interim vice president for research and graduate studies at NIU. “They’re shedding new light on the challenges of our day, providing insights into human behavior, and stretching our knowledge of new scientific frontiers. They inspire our students and their colleagues alike.”

The Presidential Research Professorships are NIU’s top awards for faculty research. They have been awarded annually since 1982 in recognition and support of the university’s research and artistic mission. Award winners receive special financial support of their research for four years, after which they carry the title of Distinguished Research Professor.

In a sense, Michel van Veenendaal has x-ray vision.

Here at Argonne, van Veenendaal works with scientists conducting experiments at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Photon Source, a synchrotron that produces the Western Hemisphere’s most brilliant x-ray beams. His collaborations led to the establishment of a joint NIU-Argonne theory group, which supports post-doctoral students. He is responsible for the search and selection of joint Argonne-NIU faculty positions.

Van Veenendaal is an expert in the field of x-ray science, which probes the atomic structure of materials, particularly those that hold promise for technological breakthroughs.

The NIU physics professor develops the theories and complex mathematics that help scientists predict and interpret the results of these experiments.

“The common thread in my work is the study of materials and nanostructures that have properties that might lead to the invention of devices that could improve our quality of life,” van Veenendaal says.

In 2007, for example, he was a member of a team of scientists that examined the orbitals of electrons and uncovered a potential path for manipulating superconductivity at the atomic scale. Cited by the journal Science as one of the top 10 scientific breakthroughs of the year, the research opens up a new area of investigation into ways of designing nanoscale superconductors.

“Michel is nationally and internationally recognized as a leader in theoretical x-ray science,” says Clyde Kimball, Distinguished Research Professor of Physics at NIU. “His theoretical work has enabled experimental scientists to push the envelope of the development of new x-ray probes and has clarified their results to explain the links between atomic and molecular interactions and the visible behavior of matter.”

Van Veenendaal grew up in the Netherlands, earning his doctorate at the University of Groningen. He joined the NIU faculty in 2001 and teaches a variety of courses, from intermediate physics to graduate-level courses in quantum mechanics.

He serves as deputy director of the NIU Institute for Nanoscience, Engineering and Technology and played an essential role in its design and organization. Additionally, he co-founded the NIU startup company, Northern Illinois Nanotech.

Van Veenendaal has worked closely with scientists at two of the world’s premier research institutions: the European Synchrotron Research Facility in France and Argonne National Laboratory in suburban Chicago. He is widely published in premier physics journals, his works having attracted more than 1,300 citations.

Van Veenendaal’s work attracts substantial external funding as well.

He has secured about $1.4 million in grants through NIU and Argonne. Additionally, he is a co-leader of a new network of 25 scientists from across the world who are working to lay the theoretical foundation for understanding “resonant x-ray scattering” – a developing and important tool for materials science researchers. The U.S. Department of Energy provided $840,000 in support of the effort.

“Dr. van Veenendaal is a recognized authority in the world in matters involving x-ray scattering from complex materials,” says Arun Bansil, professor of physics at Northeastern University in Boston. “There is little question that he will continue to remain at the forefront of this active research area long into the future.”

The original NIU press release can be found here.

The Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory is supported by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of Basic Energy Sciences, 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.