Brian Odom is among the 16 promising science and engineering researchers nationwide named this year to receive the unrestricted research grant of $875,000 over five years.
Odom joins his wife, Teri, as a Packard Fellow; it is extremely rare for both husband and wife to receive the honor. Teri Odom, associate professor of chemistry and Dow Chemical Company Research Professor at Northwestern, received the honor in 2003.
"The great thing about a Packard grant is that it frees us up to pursue big, risky ideas," said Odom. "We are going to have a lot of fun down in our basement laboratory being creative, hopefully coming up with unanticipated technologies and spin-off projects along the way. I am very grateful to the Packard Foundation for providing this type of support as well as to Northwestern for creating a great environment where young investigators can excel."
Odom's research group is an experimental group working on novel approaches to control molecular motion. The molecules are first ionized so they can be held in a radiofrequency trap -- think of a container without physical walls -- and kept isolated from their environment. Laser beams then are used to slow down the motion of the molecules and make them stop tumbling and vibrating. Applications of this new technology range from particle physics to chemistry.
One question Odom will explore with Packard funding is whether left- and right-handed versions of chiral molecules (those having a twist in their structure) are perfect mirror images of one another. Surprisingly, physicists expect that the left-handed and right-handed versions should exhibit different resonant vibrational frequencies, but up to now nobody has been able to control molecular motion well enough to observe this effect.
A second question Odom will address is whether certain constants, such as the proton-to-electron mass ratio, remain fixed in time or actually vary slightly as the universe ages. Many theories that attempt to unify quantum mechanics and gravity actually predict time variation of the constants. A laboratory discovery of this effect could play a crucial role in development of a long-sought "theory of everything."
The Packard Foundation invited presidents of 50 selected universities to nominate two young professors doing innovative research in the natural sciences or engineering. The 16 fellowship recipients then were chosen from this group.
"Each year the Packard Foundation is honored to support a cadre of innovative young scientists and engineers who are attacking some of the most important research questions of our time," said Lynn Orr, Keleen and Carlton Beal Professor at Stanford University and chairman of the Packard Fellowship Advisory Panel. "Their research, and the talented students who will work in their research groups, will continue to have a profound impact on the science and engineering community for years to come."
The Packard Fellowship Program, established in 1988, is among the nation's largest nongovernmental programs designed to seek out and reward the pursuit of scientific discovery with "no strings attached" support.
Earlier this year Odom was awarded a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation to support an experimental research program to develop new techniques for high-precision measurements on cold-trapped molecular ions.
Other honors include being a National Academy of Sciences Kavli Fellow and an Arthur H. Compton Lecturer at the Enrico Fermi Institute at the University of Chicago. Prior to joining the Northwestern faculty in 2008, Odom was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago's Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics.