Los Alamos National Laboratory physicist wins John Wheatley award for Africa outreach

Award recognizes creation of school and newsletter to support physics in Africa

October 31, 2022

James Gubernatis

Long-time computational physicist James Gubernatis at Los Alamos National Laboratory has been named the winner of the American Physical Society’s John Wheatley award. The award, given biannually to one recipient, recognizes physicists who have contributed to the international development of physics.

“Jim made invaluable contributions to computational physics during his Laboratory career,” said John Sarrao, deputy Laboratory director for Science, Technology and Engineering. “But a critical contribution any scientist can make is to help advance science on a broader scale, by bringing more people into the field. We’re proud of how he’s collaborated to help the physics community grow and build lasting relationships for science in Africa.”

Now retired, Gubernatis worked through the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics to co-found a computational physics school for students from Africa. Then, through the American Physical Society (APS), he helped found a quarterly email newsletter designed to connect the African physics community.

“Science works best when it works internationally,” Gubernatis said. “The goal of these projects is trying to bring the African physics community better into the international physics community.”

How the door first opened

Gubernatis served for nine years as the U.S. representative for the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics’ Commission on Computational Physics. When Gubernatis became chair of the commission, he heard from his friend and commission member Nithaya Chetty, a South African theoretical and computational physicist, about the need for a school focusing on computational physics for Africa.

Gubernatis and Chetty connected with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory physicist Kennedy Reed, chair of the IUPAP’s Commission on Development. With Reed’s support, the physicists pushed to get the IUPAP’s endorsement of the school, which opened the door for sustained funding for the new African School on Electronic Structure Methods and Applications.

The school allows students from Africa — mainly graduate and postdoctoral students in physics — to gain experience in the use of computational codes and accompanying software. Instructors include an international cast of physics researchers, leaders in their fields, who provide in-person mentoring over two weeks. The unique, hands-on framework has helped dozens of physicists from Africa apply computational codes to their research, explore opportunities in physics both outside and inside their home countries, and build connections with international researchers and institutions.

The quarterly African Physics Newsletter project grew out of an APS effort Gubernatis was part of to survey the state of physics in Africa. The effort revealed the need for enhanced connection between members of the African physics community, and between the African and international communities.

“The idea of the newsletter was to bridge communication gaps among physicists perhaps in their own country and certainly between countries,” Gubernatis said. “Sometimes physicists didn’t have much communication with countries outside of Africa, and at the same time, there was a lot of physics happening in Africa that those outside of it might not be aware of.”

The newsletter features content assembled by African scientists and published by the APS. Among other topics, stories focus on the experiences of scientists, often written in their own words; information about project milestones achieved in various programs; updates about educational and work opportunities inside and outside of Africa; and notices about upcoming events and activities. Articles are drawn from across the regions of African and the diaspora community living outside of the continent.

Career highlights

For Gubernatis, the project represents continued involvement in the physics community. He joined the Laboratory in 1975 and became an original member of what is now the Physics of Condensed Matter and Complex Systems group.

Gubernatis was elected an APS fellow in 1993 and a fellow of the South African Institute of Physics in 2021. Much of his work was in the application and development of Monte Carlo methods and computational algorithms to address quantum mechanical problems, especially to simulate models representative of the properties and behavior of high-temperature superconductors.