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Frontiers in
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July 2012

An Interview with Irene Beyerlein

Her other career is road cycling

Gene Nolis

Irene Beyerlein, co-director at the Center for Materials at Irradiation and Mechanical Extremes, is an avid road cyclist.

Choosing a career can be a daunting task for a student in college about to graduate, but not for this newsletter's featured research scientist: Irene Beyerlein. Although Beyerlein, co-director of the Center for Materials at Irradiation and Mechanical Extremes or CMIME, likes to say she is up to the challenge for just about anything, choosing a career after her junior year became relatively straightforward. Her interests in math and materials, coupled with a creative ambition and focused energy earned her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Clemson University. Carrying her interests to graduate school, she graduated with a Ph.D. in theoretical and applied mechanics from Cornell University. "Solid mechanics (physics of motion), materials modeling and probability have evolved into the perfect combination of fields for me," says Beyerlein.

After graduating from Cornell University, Beyerlein had the opportunity to further these interests at Los Alamos National Laboratory where she received the prestigious J. R. Oppenheimer Fellowship in 1997 and worked for 3 years on solid mechanics and materials research before becoming a technical staff member in 2000.

Besides being a great place to work, Beyerlein's other favorite involvement in Los Alamos is road cycling. She was the 2005 and 2010 State Cycling Champion.  Like the expansive hills surrounding Los Alamos, New Mexico, scientific research has its "joyful and rough patches—it's just the way it is," says Beyerlein.

Teamwork is another thing that Beyerlein supports. Be it on the road, cycling with her husband, or at a meeting working with other professionals to complete a challenge, she is a catalyst for group activities to accomplish goals.

Within the past few months, the former Director of CMIME Mike Nastasi accepted a prestigious Directorship at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the former co-director Amit Misra stepped up to the position as Director.  Beyerlein’s expertise in materials behaviors at mechanical extremes qualified her for the role as new co-director of the EFRC.

"She is an inspirational leader and mentor to several early career scientists. With her ability to work amicably and develop successful collaborations with a diverse group of peers, senior colleagues and young scientists, she is a role model for leading a synergistic research center," said Misra.

The Science of CMIME: Scientists at the center study the relationship between the atomic structure of interfaces and their interactions with defects generated in extreme environments. "The best part as co-director of the center is the same as the best part as a scientist of the center, accomplishing something bigger than what you could do alone," said Beyerlein. "It is exciting to play a role in the discovery of natural phenomena and obtaining original results that we know will have a great impact on the creation of new materials for the future."

Beyerlein’s activity in research also exemplifies not just her support for group work, but her ability to form cohesive teams that effectively use her skills to comprehend unknown phenomena of materials. For example, researchers at CMIME have discovered and confirmed a previously unknown mechanism of interstitial-vacancy recombination at interfaces of solids. Beyerlein notes, "These results greatly impact the radiation tolerance of a material in the extreme environments of radiation. They can ultimately lead to new design strategies for developing nanocrystalline metals with superior radiation tolerance."

The Moral Responsibility: Branching out from the lab setting, as a professional scientist, it becomes a moral responsibility to educate rising researchers, according to Beyerlein. However, teaching and outreach have challenges of their own too. What is an under-appreciated, yet highly effective approach to raising a group of needy students to necessary level of understanding? Summer school!

Either as a teacher or an administrator, Beyerlein has assisted in summer schools to help foster discussion and communication between researchers in similar fields. This year, she participated in the third annual summer workshop, which focused on radiation effects in materials. The focus of the summer program changes each year.  Four of the EFRCs take turns hosting the event, but all are involved. The EFRCs are the Center for Defect Physics led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory; Center for Materials Science of Nuclear Fuel led by Idaho National Laboratory; Materials Science of Actinides led by the University of Notre Dame, and CMIME. Among other purposes, these summer schools have been an important mechanism to strengthen the community and train a new generation of scientists in this field.

When CMIME led the workshop in June 2010, the centers take turns leading the program, the focus on atomic-level response of materials to irradiation had 151 registered participants. Funding from LANL sponsored 60 students and postdocs (4 from Europe) and 4 early career faculty members to attend the school. Quotes from the students provide insight to the success of these workshops include

  • “I have a materials science background, but I am new to irradiation effects. The material was right for me…”
  • “It was a great opportunity to interact with scientists and explore future collaborations and work opportunities.”

As a recent recipient of a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Binghamton University and a practiced research assistant, I was interested in opportunities for undergraduates. Beyerlein did not shy from the inquiry and responded that there are many "models" that work where students may spend from a few weeks, a summer or up to a full year with CMIME (provided they are finished with classes) on their thesis work. Beyerlein noted that it usually begins with a collaboration made between the student's advisor and CMIME.

In Closing: For aspiring or early career researchers, Beyerlein soundly advises, "focus, work hard and learn as much as you can.  This is the time when you have a lot of energy and time."

About the author(s):

  • Gene Nolis recently completed his B.S. in Chemistry at SUNY at Binghamton. He will pursue graduate studies as an ERASMUS MUNDUS scholar in the Materials for Energy Storage and Conversion Master's program. His research interests lie in understanding thermal stabilities of layered transition metal phosphates for rechargeable lithium battery materials.

Disclaimer: The opinions in this newsletter are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views or position of the Department of Energy.