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Office of the Vice President for Research

Physicist Marija Vucelja receives NSF CAREER Award

Marija Vucelja at the corner of Kelvin Drive and Hadron Road.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Assistant Professor of Physics Marija Vucelja has been awarded a prestigious NSF CAREER Award for her proposal Anomalous Thermal Relaxations of Physical Systems.

The NSF CAREER Program is a “Foundation-wide activity that offers the National Science Foundation's most prestigious awards in support of early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. Activities pursued by early-career faculty should build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research.”

Professor Vucelja is a statistical physicist interested in biophysics, soft condensed matter, computational physics, and turbulence. She studies out of equilibrium dynamics of soft condensed matter systems, population genetics, and evolutionary dynamics. Marija has created a word cloud of her research, which appears at the end of this article.

We had an opportunity to ask Marija a few questions about her NSF CAREER Award and the project it supports.

Can you briefly describe what your project, Anomalous Thermal Relaxations of Physical Systems, is about?

The project is about unusual relaxation phenomena. A prime example of such is the so-called Mpemba effect — the effect where a hot system cools down faster than an identical cold system when both are coupled to an even colder environment. Such a “shortcut” in thermal relaxation was first observed for water. By now, we know that the Mpemba effect is a general phenomenon present in magnetic systems, driven granular gasses, spin glasses, several liquids, and polymers. Cooling and heating occur by an energy flow between the system and its environment. Such an energy flow generically drives the system away from its equilibrium. Far out of thermal equilibrium is where most of the processes in biology, chemical reactions, and phenomena in the world around us typically reside. Our intuition and knowledge describe very well static properties of systems in equilibrium, yet considerably less is known about the out of equilibrium dynamics. Building on some of the modern non-equilibrium statistical physics, such as the stochastic thermodynamics, I will develop a general theoretical framework to describe the Mpemba effect alike, seemingly counter-intuitive relaxations to thermal equilibrium.

Applications of this work will lead to advances in optimal heating and cooling protocols. Such can be useful in material design and metallurgy, preparation of a physical state before an experiment, optimization, protein folding, and numerical algorithms such as simulated annealing and Markov chain Monte Carlo.

The NSF CAREER Award places an emphasis on the integration of research and education. Can you say a few words for how you will achieve that integration in this project?

I plan to bring forward a "quiz the scientist" series for middle school and high school students. The series will enable the students to ask informal questions to scientists. I want to organize the program with help from several schools in the area and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Virginia. I hope that having the opportunity to meet and ask simple questions to scientists, the students' curiosity with spark, and their views will broaden. We all remember inspirational teachers and lecturers from our youth that later on influenced our career choices. My goal is to bridge the gap between the impenetrable jargon that sciences use and bring it closer to our youth while retaining most of its essence. The potential impact of such a series is improving the scientific literacy of our youth and STEM retention.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention with regard to your work, this project, or the NSF CAREER Awards program?

I am immensely grateful for the encouragement, support and advice that I received while writing grant applications, from my inspiring colleagues at the Physics Department and broader at UVA.