Darleane C. Hoffman, a nuclear chemist who spent a significant part of her career at Los Alamos National Laboratory, has been honored with the Enrico Fermi Presidential Award, which is administered on behalf of the White House by the U.S. Department of Energy.
Hoffman is recognized for scientific discoveries advancing the field of nuclear and radiochemistry, for distinguished service to DOE’s missions in national security and nuclear waste management, and for sustained leadership in radiochemistry research and education.
She shares the award with Gabor A. Somorjai, a chemical engineer.
A March 28 announcement from the Biden-Harris Administration detailed their outstanding contributions. "Dr. Hoffman and Dr. Somorjai’s work to open the frontiers of radiochemistry and surface chemistry helped change what was possible, and advanced efforts to tackle some of the world’s greatest challenges," said Assistant to the President and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Arati Prabhakar. "They are world-class innovators and an inspiration to future generations of scientists, and I congratulate each of them for a lifetime of achievement."
Hoffman is a nuclear chemist known for the study of transuranic elements, quickly decaying elements that are heavier than uranium, according to the White House news release. In 1993, she was among a group of researchers who confirmed the existence of a new element, seaborgium 106, and was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1997.
After a brief stint at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, she worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1953 to 1984. Hoffman was the first woman to lead a scientific division at Los Alamos, landing the role in 1979. She trained generations of women scientists.
She then joined the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Nuclear Science Division as a faculty senior scientist. She co-founded the Seaborg Institute for Transactinium Science at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in 1991. She also is a professor emerita in UC Berkeley’s College of Chemistry.
Hoffman’s work impacted scientific methods used today in the national security community. In 2014, she was honored with the Los Alamos Medal, the highest award given by the Laboratory.
On being a woman in science
Hoffman came to Los Alamos with her husband, a physicist, in 1953. "There is often some initial shock when I am introduced, and Dr. D.C. Hoffman turns out to be a woman," she told The Atom magazine in 1974. "But so often, I think it is not so much discrimination as the bald fact that too many girls are trained from grade school in the belief that there are certain suitable occupations for women and that they should aspire no further. I think it is appropriate for girls to develop appropriate images, so they don’t think of women scientists as freaks. You can follow a scientific career and still have a home and family."
About the award
The Enrico Fermi Presidential Award was established in 1956 as a memorial to the legacy of Enrico Fermi, an Italian-born naturalized American citizen and 1938 Nobel Laureate in physics, who achieved the first nuclear chain reaction in 1942.
It is given to encourage excellence in research in energy science and technology benefiting humanity; recognize scientists, engineers and science policymakers who have given unstintingly over their careers to advance energy science and technology; and inspire people of all ages through the examples of Fermi, and the Fermi Award laureates who followed in his footsteps, to explore new scientific and technological horizons.
Winners receive a citation signed by the U.S. president and the secretary of energy, a gold-plated medal bearing the likeness of Enrico Fermi, and an honorarium of $100,000. In the event the award is given to more than one individual in the same year, the recipients share the honorarium equally.
Over the years, there have been 14 recipients, including J. Robert Oppenheimer, who spent a part or all of their career at Los Alamos.