Canfield awarded Department of Energy’s highest honor

Elizabeth Polsdofer

Paul Canfield, a distinguished professor in the department of physics and astronomy, U.S. Department of Energy Ames Laboratory associate and recipient of of the Department of Energy Lawrence Award, would rather cook, teach and study physics than spend time in the limelight.

Canfield works in condensed matter physics, which is looking at how the nitty-gritty details of how a material works at the deepest level — the atomic scale. Understanding how materials work at the deepest level is important to building new materials for technology.

“If humanity is to avoid war, famine, plague, etc., we need to devise and discover new materials that will help us use our material and energy resources better,” Canfield said. “Condensed matter physics is one of the fields (chemistry and material science are others) that is trying to do this. Most of what you use in your daily life is the result of what was discovered and studied in condensed matter physics.”

In addition to studying condensed matter physics at the most fundamental levels, Canfield enjoys teaching Physics 221, the first of a two-part series to introduce science and engineering students to the world of physics.

When asked what the most rewarding part of his job as a physicist is, Canfield said, “There are many.

“Seeing a student in [Physics] 221 understand a tough concept during office hours, being able to grow a new material on the first try, understanding how something works in a Sherlock Holmes manner, following the clues,” Canfield said. “All are possible in this career.”

Currently, Canfield is taking a sabbatical to lecture in Europe. Right now, he finds his home at Oxford University, one of the most prestigious universities in the world. Before the United Kingdom, Canfield spent time in Spain and Germany.

One of the traditions Canfield and his laboratory proudly stand by is giving strange gifts after a member who has been traveling returns to Ames.

“If somebody is leaving for a long time, it would be very unusual not to find something strange in your office when you come back,” said Sergey Bud’ko, scientist at Ames Laboratory. “Last time I came back after two months research trip and found a bunch of empty boxes with pictures of the group on them.”

After working with Canfield for several years, Bud’ko knows the quirks of Canfield better than most.

“[Canfield] likes to make fun of everybody, and that’s actually a good thing,” Bud’ko said. “I think it brings a very nice spirit to the group.”

Besides humor, Canfield brings gourmet cooking to the table. The homepage to the Canfield field has a special section reserved just for recipes, many of which Canfield has contributed personally.

Canfield will receive the Department of Energy’s highest honor, the Lawrence Award, this May.

The Lawrence Award is named in honor of Ernest Orlando Lawrence, the inventor of the cyclotron — a machine that accelerates subatomic particles — and a Nobel laureate in physics.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy website, “During World War II, Lawrence and his accelerators contributed to the Manhattan Project, and he later played a leading role in establishing the U.S. system of national laboratories.

“The Lawrence Award honors U.S. scientists and engineers at mid-career, for exceptional contributions in research and development supporting the Department of Energy and its mission to advance the national, economic and energy security of the United States,” according to the U.S. Department of Energy website.

For success in science-related fields, Canfield suggested that students engage in research during their undergraduate careers.

“Get involved in research. One of the biggest benefits of a large research university like Iowa State is the fact that you can get involved with research. I have a constant string of undergraduates in my group,” Canfield said. “Any student interested in science should try to get as much exposure to research as possible.”