PLS postdocs excel at the 2023 Research Slam

Postdoc slam speakers (Download Image)

Brandon Zimmerman (Atmospheric, Earth, and Energy Division), Aditya Prajapati (Materials Science Division), and Margarita Rangel (Biosciences and Biotechnology Division). 

On Thursday, August 24, a dozen LLNL postdocs presented in the annual Postdoctoral Research Slam, answering the question “Why is my research important?” in only three minutes. Each talk was then evaluated by LLNL leadership, awarding first and second place to PLS postdocs Brandon Zimmerman and Aditya Prajapati, respectively. As a bonus, the attending audience voted on their favorite presenter, awarding PLS’s Margarita Rangel with the People’s Choice Award.

Brandon Zimmerman’s talk, “3D Printing the Future: Designing Additively-Manufactured Materials for Extreme Environments,” discusses the advantages of using 3D printing to print strong metallic micro-lattices and the challenges associated with testing these materials under extreme temperatures and pressures. Because testing is expensive, Brandon’s work focuses on computational optimization using an LLNL-developed code called ALE3D to simulate how different lattice designs will respond to different conditions.

Through this process, Brandon discovered that adding a thin skin of solid material on top of the lattice design improves its ability to withstand pressure waves. Brandon says, “This is an extremely useful finding, because tuning the thickness of this sheet gives us a new design variable that we can manipulate for different environments.” Since this finding, Brandon has tested his design using the lasers at NIF, finding that one of his lattice designs survived a pressure over 100 times greater than one would feel at the bottom of the ocean’s deepest trench. Brandon’s work will allow the next generation of mission-critical machines and components to operate under conditions once thought impossible to survive in.

Aditya’s talk, “Climate Change is Hot, Electrochemistry is Cool,” discusses how electrochemistry—used to drive chemical reactions—can help meet the world’s ever-growing energy demands while also reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Aditya’s research focuses on developing an electrochemical cell that can reduce CO2 into ethylene—a chemical feedstock used across most industries.

A typical electrochemical cell consists of two major components—an anode and a cathode. Aditya’s research focuses on optimizing the device to not only reduce CO2 into ethylene at the cathode but also convert biomass, a renewable feedstock, into chemical building blocks for plastics at the anode. To date, Aditya’s team has successfully created a device capable of creating valuable chemicals sustainably. Aditya says, “Our approach generated 40% more valuable products and reduced the total energy consumption by an impressive 6%!” Building upon this success, his next steps are to scale up this technology, providing a viable means to decarbonizing industrial practices.

Margarita’s talk, “Defending Our Brains: Revolutionizing Neuroinfection Treatment for a Safer World,” discusses how immune cells can sometimes do more harm than good when they try and attack a brain-targeting virus. In the midst of trying to defend the brain, immune cells can actually cause inflammation and tissue damage. Margarita’s research aims to answer: what causes immune response to lead to damaging inflammation versus clearing the infection and how to devise treatments to preserve brain function.

“Using advanced technology called single-cell RNA sequencing, we can measure the activity of every cell type within the brain, explains Margarita. “This is like pressing pause on security camera footage to see what happened across various stages of immune response.” Margarita and her team have applied this tool to the brains of infected mice, finding that if the natural killer cells in mice are depleted before the infection, damage to the brain is dramatically decreased. Margarita’s next steps are to decipher what about these cells is damaging and how they are recruited to the brain in the first place. These findings will have many potential applications beyond viral threats, including other diseases, injuries, and chemical exposures.

As the first-place winner of the 2023 LLNL Research Slam, Brandon Zimmerman will participate in the inaugural National Laboratory Research Slam, held in Washington, D.C., on November 15. Each of the 17 national laboratories will send a single postdoc or early-career staff member to compete in this event, heightening competition and collaboration while raising visibility of the national laboratory system and federal research priorities.