Two UT professors awarded highest government honor for scientists and engineers

Nancy Huang

Thursday morning, assistant professor of physics Keji Lai received an email from the White House telling him he won a presidential award.

“I thought it was spam,” Lai said. “But then the second email came after lunchtime, and it showed the White House release, and then I realized that it was real.”

Two UT professors were awarded Thursday the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the U.S. government’s highest honor for scientists and engineers involved in research.

Lai and Deji Akinwande, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, are among the 105 scientists and engineers across the country who received this award.

Every year, different departments of the government give out awards to young investigators from university faculties and national labs. Each department nominates out of their own pool to the White House, and then the White House selects the finalists. 

Lai was nominated by the Department of Energy.

“My research specifically targeted energy-harvesting materials,” Lai said. “That’s a very strong goal of my research, to understand the energy process.” 

Akinwande, whose research focuses primarily on lengthening the battery life of electronic devices, was nominated for the award in 2013.

“On Thursday last week, I was informed by email that I was going to be getting the award,” Akinwande said. “I was, of course, extremely delighted to hear this news.”

The individual departments that nominate recipients determine the amount of funding that comes with the award. 

“Besides the recognition, [my award] comes with a million dollars to advance my research ideas,” Akinwande said. “So, in fact, I’ll be able to recruit a lot more undergraduate students and graduate students to work at my lab to advance this research we’re doing on energy-efficient electronic chips.” 

Lai was also nominated in December 2013. He said he was surprised by his win because of the large number of nominees for the White House to choose from. 

“They have a totally untransparent process selecting the winners,” Lai said. “In the end, every year, there are a hundred people who are selected for this award.” 

Associate professor of physics Greg Fiete, who was awarded the PECASE in 2010, said the award is a great honor because it is the most prestigious award given by the government for young researchers. 

“Professors Akinwande and Lai bring important recognition to UT — and especially their respective departments — by being honored this way,” Fiete said.