White House Names Georgia Tech Professor as PECASE Honoree

President Obama named Maria G. Westdickenberg, associate professor in the School of Mathematics at the Georgia Institute of Technology, as one of 94 recipients of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). The award is the highest honor bestowed by the United States government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers.  

“I am very honored to receive this award, particularly because of its combined focus on research, education and outreach. As consuming and vital as research is, I think the call to train and inspire our young people and to reach out to underrepresented groups is equally vital. I am honored to be mentioned in the context of that effort,” said Westdickenberg.

According to the White House, the PECASE awards embody the high priority the Obama Administration places on producing outstanding scientists and engineers to advance the nation’s goals, tackle grand challenges, and contribute to the American economy.  Sixteen federal departments and agencies join together annually to nominate the most meritorious scientists and engineers whose early accomplishments show the greatest promise for assuring America’s preeminence in science and engineering and contributing to the awarding agencies' missions.

“It is inspiring to see the innovative work being done by these scientists and engineers as they ramp up their careers—careers that I know will be not only personally rewarding but also invaluable to the nation,” President Obama said. “That so many of them are also devoting time to mentoring and other forms of community service speaks volumes about their potential for leadership, not only as scientists but as model citizens.”

Westdickenberg has been at Georgia Tech since 2006 where she works in applied mathematics. 

“I get excited when there is a curious or surprising phenomenon that has been observed in physical or numerical experiments and that we can come to better understand through mathematical analysis,” she said.

One example she gives of her work is determining how to calculate the effect of noise, or small thermal fluctuations, on small physical systems. Traditionally noise is rare and isn’t much of a problem, but the smaller the system, the more likely those rare events can be, said Westdickenberg. 

“Therefore as nanoscale and sub-nanoscale devices become more prevalent, these issues need to be understood more precisely than before,” she said.

The awards, established by President Clinton in 1996, are coordinated by 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. Winning scientists and engineers have received research grants for up to five years to further their studies in support of critical government missions. 

For Westdickenberg, teaching and outreach are just as vital to her career as research.

“There can be a tension in academia because research and teaching each make 
large demands on our time and energy. Sometimes teaching can suffer as a 
result. But what could be more important than teaching our young people,” she said. “When the students are engaged, teaching is thrilling. Personally, I find nothing as exciting as helping someone to reach the point where they can understand something new.”

Georgia Tech graduate Gayle Hagler, who earned a B.S. in civil and environmental engineering in 2002 and a Ph.D. in environmental engineering in 2007, was also named a PECASE Honoree by President Obama.