2022 F.G. Houtermans Award Citation & Acceptance

Citation by Andrew Putnis

This award recognises Raffaella’s wide-ranging contributions through the development and application of computational methods to address fundamental problems in mineralogy and geochemistry.

Raffaella has led award-winning research into the structure and nucleation of biominerals. She proposed a solution for the structure of vaterite by developing the concept of vaterite having multiple structures due to three levels of complexity: rotation of carbonates, polytypism and chirality. This model has since been validated through Raman spectroscopy experiments. She led the team that provided theoretical evidence for the growth of chiral vaterite superstructures in non-racemic aspartic acid solution, representing a step forward in understanding how bio-molecules control mineral growth.

Secondly, she has also provided definitive evidence in favour of a new non-classical nucleation theory, by showing that the initial ion association of calcium carbonate in water involves dynamic association of ion pairs to form polymer-like chains. This provided one of the first structural models for pre-nucleation species in this important geochemical system and sparked a major increase in studies of so-called “non-classical” nucleation of minerals. Non-classical nucleation theory is now a hot topic in mineralogy and has changed the way we think about the nucleation and crystal growth of minerals.

Thirdly, Raffaella has co-authored software packages and developed tools, both independently and in collaboration, which model with high accuracy challenging systems such as mineral nanotubes and ion complexes in water. She has led the way in applying both ab initio quantum mechanical techniques and more recently force-field based molecular dynamics to important problems in mineralogy and geochemistry. These tools are used worldwide in academia and industry, across the broad fields of chemistry, geochemistry and mineralogy.

Raffaella is originally from Italy, where she obtained a PhD in Chemical Sciences at the University of Torino in 2010. Soon after, she moved to Australia for a post-doctoral position in Prof. Julian Gale’s group at Curtin University in Perth. Within a couple of years, Raffaella was able to develop her own research group with some very successful research grants and fellowships. She currently leads an emerging team at Curtin University doing interdisciplinary research at the boundary between the fields of computational materials chemistry and geochemistry.

One of Raffaella’s many exceptional qualities, beyond scientific excellence, is her commitment to science outreach and the advancement of others. Recently she has taken on a national leadership role as a member of the Executive for the Early Mid-Career Researchers Forum of the Australian Academy for Science, as well as becoming a member of the peak committee for allocating computational resources in Australia. On top of these activities, Raffaella has selflessly given much of her time to organising conferences in order to promote science locally, nationally and internationally, including acting as Chair for multiple sessions at Goldschmidt.

In summary, Raffaella is an exceptional scientist who has managed to combine all of these achievements while also caring for her family. She is a role model for young female scientists and is an extremely worthy winner of this prestigious Houtermans Award.

Andrew Putnis
University of Münster, Germany

Acceptance by Raffaella Demichelis

First, thank you Andrew for the nice and generous introduction. I also would like to thank the European Association of Geochemistry, the current president Derek Vance, and the Fredrick Houtermans Award Committee for choosing me as the recipient of this year’s award.

I am feeling very humbled to receive such a great honor, and also proud as it came despite considerably reduced opportunities over the past few years, due to a number of personal challenges. While this award is individual, the science and work environment that lead me here were, under many aspects, a collective effort. Therefore, I would like to share here a few words of gratitude to the people who have supported my professional growth and contributed to my scientific achievements throughout my career. 

First, my postdocs and students, for their dedication; then my collaborators, mentors and colleagues  – whom I call my network of genuine supporters – for supporting me and for believing in me. And I thank all of the aforementioned people for their support and understanding during the past few years, while I have been going through extended periods of career break. Indeed, each and everyone of them has been a crucial pillar in building around me a flexible environment that allowed me to progress with my career and to be here today, to receive this award. I believe they all collectively set a fantastic example of what allyship means, one to keep in mind as a model to make our workplaces a safe, flexible and supportive space for everyone.

A second thought goes to the type of science that I am doing. I am developing my career walking along the boundaries between chemistry, earth science, physics and computer science. While I am a chemist by training, I love the highly interdisciplinary aspect of my research. It is  about geochemical processes seen with an atomic-scale lens, and also about exploring the fascinating chemistry that nature offers.

We are at a point in time where technology is allowing us to literally take a picture of what atoms do and use this information to help building the puzzle of crystal growth and mineral reactivity. This is a key to understand our planet, but also a first step to learning how to mimic nature, and eventually use this new chemistry to address a variety of scientific challenges. Also in this case, I am grateful to my network of genuine supporters, from whom I have learnt so much and who have been a great source of inspiration.

I conclude by thanking my family for providing an everlasting source of care and support. I come from a small countryside area, I’ve been the first in my family to go to university and while flagging me as an odd girl since I was little, they also did all they could to support me throughout my studies and beyond. Similarly, my husband and children are now doing all they can to support my career.

Thank you all of you for your attention and I hope you will enjoy the lecture that follows.

Raffaella Demichelis
Curtin University, Australia