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Elbio Dagotto Wins SEC Faculty Achievement Award

February 23, 2024

Elbio Dagotto

Elbio Dagotto
Photo by Showni Medlin-Crump

Elbio Dagotto is a condensed matter theorist who hears "football" and automatically thinks "soccer." Now he's a Southeastern Conference champion, not for football (American or otherwise), but for his outstanding work as a professor.

Since 2012 the SEC has acknowledged one exceptional faculty member from each member university to celebrate their success in teaching, research, and service. Dagotto, a distinguished professor of physics and a distinguished scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, is this year's University of Tennessee, Knoxville, recipient of the SEC Faculty Achievement Award. He will be among the 14 professors considered for the 2024 SEC Professor of the Year honor, to be announced later in the spring.

"I am deeply honored to be selected among so many distinguished faculty to represent the University of Tennessee for the SEC academic award," Dagotto said. "I am proud to be a Volunteer, proud to be a faculty member of the department of physics and our wonderful university at large, proud of my state of Tennessee, and proud to live in the South of the USA."

As Adrian Del Maestro, professor and department head, remarked, "Professor Dagotto represents all the best qualities of a university professor and member of the SEC community where 'it just means more.' He is a dedicated teacher, beloved by his students, and he is internationally recognized for his fundamental research on how materials can be coaxed to exhibit astounding and useful quantum phenomena that enable the modern technologies we use every day."

Dagotto joined the faculty in 2004, bringing with him a research program dedicated to understanding strongly correlated electrons: the effects when the properties of one individual electron depend strongly on what the rest of the ensemble of many other electrons is doing. These interactions can be especially difficult to calculate, and untangling them is Dagotto's specialty. The findings are particularly useful to figure out quantum systems, where the parameters may include only a few atoms and traditional laws of physics don't apply. In terms of devices and applications, quantum science will take over where silicon meets its limits, and Dagotto's work is important for exploring this new frontier. He lends his expertise to UT's research cluster on Quantum Materials for Future Technologies, as well as ORNL's Materials Science and Technology Division.

"In my 20 years here, I have witnessed the steep positive trajectory of our academic efforts in many fields of research," he said. "Everybody in the national and international scientific community now knows that 'something big is brewing' in East Tennessee, in conjunction with our partner institution, Oak Ridge National Laboratory."

The SEC award is one of many on Dagotto's long list of honors. In 2022 he won the American Physical Society's Adler Award in Materials Physics for his pioneering work on the theoretical framework of correlated electron systems and his gift for describing their importance through elegant written and oral communications. (His top five publications have been cited more than 11,000 times, and in 2004 he was listed among the 250 most highly-cited physicists.) A Fellow of both the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he has written or edited numerous works on condensed matter physics principles, properties, and potential applications; including books, journals, and invited review articles.

Dagotto shares his knowledge in the classroom and has impressed students with his teaching ability, especially in the introductory quantum mechanics course for undergraduates. Last spring he won the UT Society of Physics Students Teacher of the Year Award for the third time in five years (2019, 2021, 2023). At the 2023 Academic Honors Banquet UT recognized Dagotto's university contributions with the Alexander Prize. Named for former UT president and Tennessee senator Lamar Alexander and his wife, Honey, the award honors a faculty member who is "an exceptional undergraduate teacher whose scholarship is also distinguished."

A native of Argentina who earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in physics at the Instituto Balseiro in Bariloche, Dagotto's service extends beyond research and teaching. Along with Professor Adriana Moreo, he helps organize campus lunches for Hispanic physicists at all levels so they feel welcome both in the department and in the field. They also like to discuss what Dagotto good-naturedly calls "real football" (meaning soccer). And he's pleased with the evolving perception that the SEC no longer means just sports.

"The SEC is slowly but surely transforming from an athletic conference to a broader powerhouse that certainly includes the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) arena," he said. "Our future is bright, and I am happy to have contributed to these developments."

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