Trillions of atoms in motion could take the form of a new cancer drug or a bendable phone. At the quantum scale, “atoms vibrate, combine, and pile up in very complicated ways,” says University of Vermont chemist Michael Ruggiero.

For his remarkable work in better understanding how these subtle, but very specific, motions of atoms influence the bulk properties of materials people can use, the twenty-eight-year-old UVM assistant professor was selected as one of Forbes’ “30-Under-30” leaders in science.

Forbes announced its 2019 winners on November 13, calling it their “annual list chronicling the brashest entrepreneurs across the United States and Canada.”

In his on-campus laboratory, Ruggiero and his students hit materials with a powerful laser to tease out the quantum mechanics of molecules. Then they take what they learn in these real-world materials and model their motions on a supercomputer.

“We go from the very basic to the very applied,” Ruggiero says. For example, with insights he gains about the motions of specific molecules, he’s working to help pharmaceutical companies better understand how materials may be interacting to degrade a medication.

“The kind of work we do could lead to drugs with a longer shelf life,” he says. Other examples of where the Ruggiero's research program aims to help: improving the ability of semiconductors to work in flexible displays, and better understanding the mechanical properties of gas storage materials for improved hydrogen fuel cells.

“To be recognized as a leading scientist across my age group is a huge honor,” says Ruggiero. It’s an honor that emerges from his innovative work hunting for “specific molecular motions that lead to favorable properties,” he says.