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updated: 11/5/2010 6:05 PM

White House honors young scientists

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  • Juan Estrada

    Juan Estrada
    Courtesy of Fermilab

  • Dillon Fong

    Dillon Fong
    courtesy Argonne Laboratory

  • Elena Shevchenko

    Elena Shevchenko
    courtesy Argonne Laboratory


Three young scientists from suburban government science labs have been awarded the highest honor in their fields given by the federal government to researchers still in the early phases of their careers.

Dillon Fong and Elena Shevchenko, who both work at Argonne Laboratory in Lemont, joined Juan Estrada, a physicist at Batavia's Fermi Laboratory, and 82 other scientists and engineers around the country in winning the award from nine different participating agencies ranging from the Department of Defense to Agriculture to Energy.

They were all nominated by the labs at which they work and recognized for their innovative research as well as their commitment to community service.

"These presidential awards recognize that one of the responsibilities indeed, one of the defining features of great scientists and engineers is that they put their knowledge and experience to work for others," said Rick Weiss, director of strategic communications at the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Fong, who grew up in Aurora and now lives in Elmhurst, works in the material sciences division at Argonne, looking into applications of his research on energy. Catalysis, for example, the process that makes chemical changes happen faster by adding something extra, has the potential to make energy conversion even more efficient. Fong hopes this award will let him jump-start this aspect of his research. But he said he could never do it alone.

"It really is a group effort and it's somewhat embarrassing to be singled out," he said.

Estrada is an Argentine physicist who lives in Aurora and studies the makeup of the universe. Only 5 percent of the universe is made up of particles scientists know about. Another 25 percent is completely unknown and 70 percent is called dark energy, according to Estrada. The dark energy is what he studies and what he says won him the award.

While using detectors to create a large digital camera to photograph the light from stars, Estrada figured out he could use those detectors underground to directly measure "dark matter" -- a substance scientists still know very little about. Estrada found out he was nominated for the award about a month ago and thought the honor would end there.

"It's very good news," Estrada said. "I thought it was great just being nominated. I didn't think I had very good chances of winning."

Shevchenko is a leader in the field of nanotechnology. She won the award from the Department of Energy, like Fong and Estrada, based on her work with things like batteries and photovoltaic cells.

Other area winners include Eric Pop at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Emily Weiss and Malcolm MacIver at Northwestern University. Pop's and Weiss' awards were from the Department of Defense and MacIver's from the National Science Foundation.