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Notre Dame researcher at the leading-edge of actinide research

Nina Welding • DATE: August 9, 2019

Actinides have unique characteristics that are vital to health and medicine, energy and the environment, and national security and public safety. At the University of Notre Dame, Amy E. Hixon, assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences and an ND Energy faculty affiliate, is making great strides to advance fundamental knowledge on actinide elements.   

Government agencies with early-career programs aim to help new investigators develop their research programs and become better established within their own scientific communities. Faculty receiving early-career awards are viewed as being strong academic role models in research and education and having leadership qualities to advance the mission of their departments. Early career awards are highly competitive and are, therefore, among the most prestigious grants given to these faculty.

For Hixon, submitting research proposals to early-career programs was an essential part of her work since arriving at the University in 2013. She is now the recipient of three of these prestigious early-career awards, all of which will be used to advance her research on the actinide elements. The first two awards Hixon received were from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). In 2015, she was awarded a Nuclear Forensics Junior Faculty Award through the National Technical Nuclear Forensics Center, and two years later, she received an Early Career Award from the DOE Office of Science. Both awards total $950,000 over a 7-year period. Most recently, Hixon received a CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in support of actinide research. This award provides an additional $472,150 over a 5-year period (2019-24). Collectively, Hixon has received more than $1.4 million in early-career government funding for her research on actinides.   

“The opportunity to advance new research ideas drove me to work hard towards receiving these grants,” Hixon explained. “I am honored to have received these awards and grateful for the financial support to advance my research goals,” she added. Hixon’s research focuses on several aspects of transuranic (e.g., neptunium, plutonium, americium) chemistry, such as environmental geochemistry, materials science, and nuclear forensics. She uses wet chemistry, synthesis, spectroscopy, and modeling techniques to study the transuranic elements across space and time in order to predict their behavior in both natural and engineered systems. “These elements pose a long-term environmental concern due to their toxicity and long half-lives. Our research provides new information that can be used to protect public health and safety, safeguard the environment, promote national defense and security, and support a sustainable nuclear fuel cycle,” she further explained.

Hixon has been a member of the Notre Dame faculty since 2013. She received her Ph.D. and M.S. degrees in environmental engineering & earth science from Clemson University in 2013 and 2008, respectively, and her B.S. degree in chemistry from Radford University in 2006. While Hixon was a doctoral candidate at Clemson University, she also held a position at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the Office of Federal and State Materials and Environmental Management Programs, where she supported the work of the Performance Assessment and Environmental Review branches. She is currently a member of the American Chemical Society, American Nuclear Society, Geological Society of America, and Geochemical Society. Hixon has published 18 journal articles and has one patent.

— Barbara Villarosa, ND Energy