Three faculty members from the Eberly College of Science have been honored with 2021 Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowships in recognition of their research accomplishments. The new Sloan fellows include Maria del Carmen Carmona Benitez, assistant professor of physics; Joseph Cotruvo, Jr., Louis Martarano Career Development Professor of Chemistry; and Elizabeth Elacqua, assistant professor of chemistry.
Awarded annually since 1955, the fellowships honor extraordinary researchers whose creativity, innovation, and research accomplishments make them stand out as the next generation of scientific leaders.
“A Sloan Research Fellow is a rising star, plain and simple” says Adam F. Falk, president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. “To receive a Fellowship is to be told by the scientific community that your achievements as a young scholar are already driving the research frontier.”
Carmona, Cotruvo, and Elacqua are among 4 from Penn State and 128 outstanding researchers from 58 institutions across the U.S. and Canada to make up this year’s cohort. The fellowships are awarded in close coordination with the scientific community. Candidates must be nominated by their fellow scientists and winners are selected by independent panels of senior scholars on the basis of a candidate’s research accomplishments, creativity, and potential. A Sloan Research Fellowship is one of the most prestigious awards available to young researchers
Carmona is a particle astrophysicist who studies dark matter, an invisible form of matter that makes up 85 percent of the matter in the universe and has eluded scientists since its existence was first suggested in 1933. The quest to find out what dark matter is made of is considered one of the most pressing questions in physics. She was part of the Large Underground Xenon (LUX) experiment, the most sensitive dark matter detector until its decommission in 2017. She is now a key member of the LUX-ZEPLIN (LZ) experiment, the largest dark matter detector to date, constructed in the Sanford Underground Research Facility in South Dakota inside a former gold mine nearly one mile underground. LZ is expected to begin data collection in 2021, and, with a sensitivity at least 100 times better than its predecessor, it will be at the forefront of the search for dark matter in the next decade. Carmona is an expert on detector hardware and operations, cryogenics, calibrations, data analysis and Monte Carlo simulations. Looking beyond LZ, she is leveraging her experience and expertise in developing dark matter experiments to pursue R&D that pushes the sensitivity of detectors beyond what current technology allows.
Prior to joining the faculty at Penn State, Carmona was an assistant project scientist from 2014 to 2017 and a postdoctoral research associate from 2013 to 2014 at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Prior to that, Carmona was a postdoctoral research associate at Case Western University from 2009 to 2013. She earned a doctoral degree in physics in 2009, a master’s degree in physics and mathematics in 2006, and a bachelor’s degree in physics in 2004 at the University of Granada, Spain.
Joseph Cotruvo, Jr.
In his research, Cotruvo seeks to learn from nature about how to selectively bind valuable metals. He focuses on understanding how some proteins—including the protein lanmodulin, which his group recently discovered and named—are so selective for rare earth metals. He also explores how to harness these proteins to detect rare earths in the environment and separate them out from other metals and from one another. This work could help address the challenging chemical problems of mining rare earth elements and recovering them from electronic waste. Because recovery and separation of rare earth metals is an energy- and resource-intensive process that uses environmentally harmful chemicals, using a more efficient “green” material like lanmodulin has the potential to lower costs, decrease waste, and allow usage of a wider variety of sources of rare earth metals. His group also researches how pathogenic bacteria control their levels of essential metals like iron, which could lead to new drug targets for antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Cotruvo has previously been honored with a Department of Energy Early Career Award in 2020, a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award in 2020, a Charles E. Kaufman Foundation New Investigator Award in 2018, a Jane Coffin Childs Memorial Fund Postdoctoral Fellowship in 2013, and a National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship in 2008.
Prior to joining the Penn State faculty in 2016, Cotruvo was a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. He earned a doctoral degree in chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2012 and a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Princeton University in 2006.
Elacqua’s research vision is underpinned by an interdisciplinary approach, using polymer chemistry to address shortcomings in organic synthesis, and using organic chemistry to confront challenges in polymer synthesis. She is establishing synthetic techniques to control monomer sequence and to separately synthesize homogeneous polymers that, akin to nature, comprise catalysts that work cooperatively to significantly speed up light-mediated reactions. She is also motivated by the prospect of discovering robust materials from abundant aromatic compounds, aiming to develop carbon-based polymers from simple petroleum-based or biomass-derived feedstocks. Her laboratory is ultimately looking to answer complex questions in cooperative catalysis, sustainability, and polymer sequence control.
Elacqua was previously honored with a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award in 2021, a Thieme Chemistry Journal Award in 2020, and an ACS Doctoral New Investigator Award in 2019. She has published more than 35 scientific papers in journals such as ACS Catalysis, ACS Nano, Angewandte Chemie, and the Journal of the American Chemical Society.
Prior to joining the faculty at Penn State in 2017, Elacqua was a postdoctoral research associate at the Molecular Design Institute and the Department of Chemistry at New York University. She earned a doctoral degree at the University of Iowa in 2012 and a bachelor's degree in chemistry and biology at Le Moyne College in 2006.