Erik Grumstrup wins prestigious Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers

Monday Jul. 15th, 2019

Erik Grumstrup’s research focuses on the smallest of particles yet has the potential to make a big impact on the technologies we use every day, from computers to solar cells.

That potential was awarded last week when Grumstrup, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in the College of Letters and Science at Montana State University, earned a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor the U.S. government gives to independent researchers near the beginning of their careers.

“It was really a surprise, honestly,” Grumstrup said.

According to a release from the White House, PECASE winners “show exceptional promise for leadership in science and technology.” The award draws from recipients of early career awards through 10 government agencies, in this case the U.S. Department of Energy.

Nicol Rae, dean of the College of Letters and Science said the award is “wonderful recognition” for the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and the Materials Science Graduate Program at MSU.
“Eric is one of MSU’s outstanding junior scientists, and I am very proud of his achievement in securing the highly prestigious PECASE award,” Rae said.

The PECASE honors those who are doing more than conducting innovative research. Awardees must also have a commitment to outreach, education and leadership within their community.

“This PECASE award is a well-deserved recognition of an extraordinary young faculty member,” said chemistry and biochemistry department head Joan Broderick. “Erik's research is characterized by creativity, combined with an unusual breadth of understanding across the fields of chemistry, physics and materials science. He is also an outstanding and inspiring mentor to the research students working in his lab.”

Grumstrup considers his path to be one paved by a host of mentors, including a high school chemistry teacher who sparked his interest in the science and an undergraduate professor who pushed him to consider graduate school and research to continue his education.

“It’s exciting to be that person for young people as well,” he said.

Grumstrup has been at MSU since 2014, when he was the first person hired for the Materials Science Graduate Program, a collaboration with Montana Tech and the University of Montana that spans the fields of chemistry, physics and engineering. His lab now houses more than 10 researchers ranging from the undergraduate to postdoctoral level who study materials based on the way electrons move through them.

“We are doing what I really believe is world-class research,” Grumstrup said. “I think this reward reflects the capabilities of our students.”

Technology, Grumstrup said, is governed by physical laws. He recalls the “systematic march” of computer processor speeds in the 1990s and early 2000s, with each new model drastically faster than the one before. Today, those speeds have all but topped out near 3 GHz due to fundamental limitations of the materials used, Grumstrup explained.

“What really compels me to go forward is trying to push that boundary back a little bit,” Grumstrup said. “If we understand properties that exist in the universe and discover how to use these properties to our advantage, there are infinite possibilities.”  

Material defects hinder the movement of electrons and thus prevent technologies from reaching higher levels of efficiency. The Grumstrup Research Group looks at the movement of these microscopic particles within substances to understand these defects in materials at the very basic level in hopes of finding a way to remove obstacles from the electrons’ paths.

To conduct the research, Grumstrup works in tiny increments of time. Lasers to test electron movement pulse in picoseconds — trillionths of a second — and femtoseconds — which are a thousand times smaller yet. There are more femtoseconds in one hour than there are seconds in the entire 13.7-billion-year history of the universe. The lasers are fast enough to capture slight changes in color as electrons absorb and use energy.  

"We’re making significant contributions toward understanding, particularly in next generation solar materials,” Grumstrup said.