Ballet and fast cars take back seat to national security science

Aug. 7, 2012

Ballet and fast cars take back seat to national security science

Robert H Hirschfeld,, 925-422-2379
By day, Heather Whitley is a design physicist studying transport processes in dense plasmas, such as those relevant to LLNL's National Ignition Facility.

During evenings and on weekends, she dances and volunteers with Livermore's nonprofit ballet company, the Valley Dance Theatre. And she likes to get there in a hurry while driving her 2011 Camaro SS.

Whitley, who turns 32 at the end of August, graduated from high school in Roswell, N.M. and has heard every possible tourist question about aliens. "The first year or two that I lived in California, I didn't tell people I was from Roswell. I'd just say I was from the southern part of New Mexico, which is actually more accurate since I lived in Silver City for the first eight years of my life," she says. "Now, I've embraced my quirky heritage, so I don't mind discussing the so-called 'Roswell Incident' and resultant fanfare."

She graduated from New Mexico State University in Las Cruces in 2002 with a bachelor's degrees in chemistry and French, along with a minor in physics.

After being awarded a National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship, she had her choice of attending the nation's top-level universities.

She chose UC Berkeley because of its science programs and the great weather in California. "I looked at this list of top graduate schools in chemistry and asked, 'Where does it not snow?' and narrowed the list down to Berkeley, Cal Tech, and University of Texas in Austin. The northeast was not an option for me," she jokes.

She received her Ph.D. from UC Berkeley in theoretical chemistry in 2007. Just 11 days after she filed her doctoral thesis entitled, "Bosonic helium in nanoscale environments: adsorption, energetics, and superfluidity," she began her work at LLNL.

She joined the Lab as a postdoc in the Quantum Simulations Group, where she used supercomputer simulations to study the properties of semiconductor nanomaterials, which could eventually be applicable to solar cells and other clean energy technologies.

"Our work was aimed at understanding how the surface structure of cadmium selenide nanomaterials is reflected in specific experimental measurements. Chemistry can actually be a pretty messy process," Whitley said. "And the way these things are built in a flask may not be the way we might envision them based on our knowledge of the bulk crystal structure."

Her group's findings demonstrated that, when coupled with simulation data, a method called "X-ray absorption spectroscopy" can be used to understand the surface structure of nanomaterials. This is important for researchers since the surface of a nanomaterial can determine how effective it is as a material for solar cells, which convert light into electricity, or in other applications.

According to Whitley: "We developed a way for researchers to develop better correlation between the structure of a nanomaterial and its measured opto-electronic properties. This is important to understanding how we might be able to tailor materials to meet specific goals as solar cells or in other devices."

As a postdoc, she helped revive the LLNL Postdoc Association (LLPA), which now serves to further career and social networking opportunities. The group also acts as a conduit between the postdocs and Lab management. Even though Whitley is no longer considered a postdoc, she still assists the current leadership of the LLPA.

Whitley joined AX Division as a design physicist in October 2011, and now works primarily in high energy density physics. As a member of the Cimarron collaboration, she is helping to expand the understanding of the microphysics of dense plasmas, with the primary goal of developing a better understanding of processes that are important in experiments at the National Ignition Facility.

She was nominated for (and won) a Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) by her group supervisor Frank Graziani, who wrote: "Heather has rapidly become both an expert in high energy density physics and an emerging leader in the field. Her contributions include understanding the complex nature of the interactions of charged particles in various extreme states of matter and the transport properties these states of matter exhibit."

The awards, established by President Clinton in 1996, are coordinated by the Office of Science and Technology Policy within the Executive Office of the President. Winners receive a $50,000 grant to continue with their research for up to five years.

Whitley was recognized "for using path-integral Monte Carlo techniques to produce very accurate quantum statistical potentials for use in molecular dynamic codes, for applying these methods to first-principles understanding of thermal conductivity in ignition capsules for the National Ignition Facility, and for service to the laboratory Postdoctoral Association."

"I have a strong dedication to helping students pursue careers in science and technology. I enjoy mentoring students and postdocs, and get great satisfaction in serving as a judge at local science fairs and volunteering at career fairs for high school students," she says.

In addition to dancing, Whitley is the historian for a group dedicated to fast cars and community service: Camaros Limited Norcal.

She is engaged to be married next summer to a Yale-educated economist who works at the headquarters of a nationwide retail chain.