University professor nationally honored by White House

By Gus Bode

When spotlighting the nation’s top scientific research institutions, most people could look past SIUC.

But the National Science Foundation, the nation’s federal leader in scientific research, recently tapped a university associate professor as one of the country’s brightest young scientists.

Maria de las Mercedes Calbi, an associate professor of Physics, was named one of 20 outstanding scholars to receive the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers – the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on outstanding scientists and engineers beginning their independent careers.


Calbi, the university’s first researcher to receive such an honor, earned the award for her work on molecules and atoms and how they work with nanotube bundles.

Calbi said she became eligible for the award after she received a $400,000 grant from the NSF last year.

‘I’m just very happy that I received this award during (the Obama) administration considering all the things they do for science and technology,’ she said. ‘That is one of the things that I am most excited about. It was really a big surprise for me because I didn’t even apply. They just selected me.’

Calbi said her work with molecules has the potential to create breakthroughs with gas separation and storage – her work, she said, could help identify and eliminate lethal gasses and help store useful or wanted gasses.

And while the award doesn’t come with a check attached to it, it certainly will have its benefits, she said.

With the university Southern at 150 plan in motion – a university initiative that seeks to make SIUC one of the top-75 research institutions in the nation – an award like Calbi’s could be immeasurable.

‘We have a fine reputation as a research university,’ said Chancellor Sam Goldman. ‘When we are recognized by one of the major research offices such as the NSF at the federal level, when the government is looking around for large grants, we get looked at.’


‘You look at the list of people on this list … they are from places like MIT, Rutgers, Oklahoma, Northwestern. She is running in some unbelievably great company.’

Calbi said she, along with the other 19 awardees, would head to Washington in the fall for an official ceremony.

In the meantime, she said she would continue with her work and research.

Calbi said she plans on using more undergraduate and graduate students in her research in the coming semester to further the work.

For Calbi, using aspiring students is important in her work.

‘I don’t believe in this thing when they say you either teach or you do research. That doesn’t work. They work together,’ she said. ‘When you make those two things work together, you get the best results and that is what this award is all about.’