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The legacy of a Laboratory legend

The Darleane Hoffman Postdoctoral Fellowship continues the work of a groundbreaking scientist.
February 16, 2021
a woman seated

Hoffman at the Laboratory in 1975.CREDIT: Los Alamos National Laboratory

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“The thing I really like about the Lab is that it’s a big institution with a lot of different things going on, so it seems very common for people to evolve and grow and do different things."- Beth Lindquist

By Virginia Grant

The Darleane Christian Hoffman Distinguished Postdoctoral Fellowship provides three years of funding for one female scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory. The fellowship is named after the first woman to be leader of a scientific division at the Laboratory—Darleane Hoffman. The fellowship, previously named for Nobel Laureate Marie Curie, “recognizes, encourages, and rewards outstanding scientific and engineering contributions by women.” The Laboratory renamed it in 2017 to honor Hoffman’s 31-year career at Los Alamos.

Hoffman began work at the Laboratory in 1953 in the Field Testing Division. After 25 years, she left Los Alamos to work as a Guggenheim Fellow at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. She returned to Los Alamos in 1979 as the leader of the Chemistry and Nuclear Chemistry Division. In 2014, Hoffman received the Los Alamos Medal—one of the highest honors the Laboratory bestows.

Hoffman’s most notable work at Los Alamos was her discovery of spontaneous fission in the early 1970s. Fission is the splitting of an atom. At the time, scientists were aware of atoms splitting because of outside forces such as another particle hitting them or because of radioactive decay—processes that were key to the success of the atomic bombs of 1945. But Hoffman discovered the atoms of the element fermium (named after Los Alamos scientist Enrico Fermi) could spontaneously split. The implications of her work in spontaneous fission were particularly pertinent for studies of nuclear waste storage. Changing radioactive materials, like those capable of spontaneous fission, are unstable, and Hoffman’s discovery aided how scientists could determine safe ways to prevent radioactive material from leaking.

A man at a podium.

Darleane Hoffman and Beth Lindquist.

After leaving Los Alamos for Berkeley, Hoffman was part of the team that discovered a new element—seaborgium (named for chemist Glenn Seaborg). She received myriad awards, including the National Medal of Science. Hoffman, now in her mid-90s, lives in Palo Alto, California.

A recent recipient of the Hoffman fellowship is Beth Lindquist, a computational chemist. As the Hoffman fellow, Lindquist’s primary project is modeling nonequilibrium phenomena. “If we have a mixture of molecules and nothing is acting on it, we know how to model that on a computer,” she explains, “but if we have some driving force or weird dynamics, we might not know how to make good predictions for that.” Lindquist uses machine learning and statistical inference to map these nonequilibrium systems to learn more about how they behave.

In 2020, Lindquist accepted a permanent position in the Lab’s Theoretical Division, where she is able to use funds from the Hoffman fellowship to continue her work in modeling. Lindquist also works in high-explosives research, predicting the behavior of certain materials under extreme conditions.

Although Hoffman’s work was more traditional chemistry in a laboratory, and Lindquist works more with physics on a computer, they share an interest in the multifaceted research opportunities that Los Alamos offers. “The thing I really like about the Lab,” Lindquist says, “is that it’s a big institution with a lot of different things going on, so it seems very common for people to evolve and grow and do different things. I don’t know what I’m going to be doing in ten years, and that’s a good thing. There will be so many options and opportunities.”