Seven UConn faculty members – four in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and three in the School of Engineering – were recently awarded Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) awards from the National Science Foundation. These highly competitive awards recognize junior faculty for outstanding research and exemplary educational skills, with the goal of building a firm foundation for leadership in integrating education and research.
Additionally, one engineering faculty member and one in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences received the Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Program award, which seeks to identify and support academic scientists and engineers who are early in their career and show exceptional promise for doing creative research.
Assistant professor of mathematics (CLAS) Matthew Badger was awarded a five-year, $410,000 grant for his project, “Analysis and Geometry of Measures.”
Badger’s research addresses problems related to measures, which are abstract tools used across all fields of modern mathematics to understand the concept of size. For example, measures can describe the length, area, or volume of mathematical sets drawn in two- or three-dimensional Euclidean spaces. With his new project, Badger will build on his recent discoveries in geometric measures theory, the results of which may significantly increase scholars’ understanding of these essential tools.
Badger’s award will also support training and professional development activities for young scholars who work in geometric measure theory and related areas at UConn and other academic institutions. Among these initiatives is a pair of linked conferences for postdoctoral researchers and graduate students that will take place in fall 2017 and spring 2019, respectively.
Assistant professor of chemistry (CLAS) Alfredo Angeles-Boza has been awarded $664,576 over five years for his project, “Heavy Atom Isotope Effects in Carbon Dioxide Fixation Catalysis: Fundamental Understanding and Catalyst Discovery.”
Angeles-Boza’s project will address two of society’s most pressing problems: global warming and the diminishing stockpile of fossil fuels. He will specifically examine the efficiency of catalysts used to speed up the conversion of carbon dioxide (CO2) into molecules that are useful for fuel preparation and processing. By studying how these substances work in atomic detail, scientists will be able to design catalysts that produce only desirable compounds and convert CO2 fast enough so that the process can be performed at an industrial scale.
In addition, Angeles-Boza’s award will support outreach efforts aimed at increasing the number of minority students who graduate with a chemistry major. A primary component will be a new tutoring and mentoring program that will include seminars from research scholars with Hispanic backgrounds.
Will Ouimet, an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and Center for Integrative Geosciences (CLAS), has received a five-year, $475,000 NSF CAREER grant for his project, “Linking Land-Use Dynamics with Anthropocene Sedimentation.”
Ouimet’s project will examine the links between upstream land-use practices and downstream sedimentation across southern New England. Agriculture, deforestation, and other human activities significantly impact landscapes in the region, resulting in soil erosion; sediment accumulation in rivers and dams; and disruption of wetland, lake, and floodplain ecosystems.
Using high-resolution topographic data, field studies, and sediment analysis, Ouimet’s research is expected to enhance basic scientific understanding of historic land-use practices in the region, the effects of these practices on soils and erosion, the comparison of long-term landscape change with recent human-induced change, and markers of the human activity in the geologic record. The project will also integrate research with new opportunities for outreach, education, and conservation regarding historic cultural features within area forests, as well as education and training opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students focused on understanding the physical and environmental consequences of land-use practices and the implications of continued development.
David M. Pierce, assistant professor in mechanical engineering, was awarded $500,000 over five years for his CAREER project, “Understanding Collagen Microcracks in Soft Tissues Under Normal Body Loads.” Pierce and his research team, the Interdisciplinary Mechanics Laboratory, discovered that impacts usually considered non-injurious will often cause micrometer-scale cracks in collagen of human cartilage. These microcracks may lead to pre-clinical osteoarthritis, but the extent to which they grow under repetitive loads during normal daily activities is unknown. Osteoarthritis afflicts nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population, and causes pain, functional limitations, lost earnings, and depression.
Pierce’s CAREER award will provide baseline data on microcrack propagation by combining computer simulations with new experimental data; validated tools to predict local micro-mechanics of damage in porous, fibrous materials from macroscopic deformations; platform technologies to more broadly study the mechanical functions of soft tissues and engineering materials; mechanical understanding of a likely path to osteoarthritis; new markers to evaluate the effectiveness of therapies targeting early cartilage degeneration; and an educational platform to engage diverse students.
Assistant professor of computer science and engineering Don Sheehy received a five-year, $223,632 CAREER award for his project “Algorithmic Challenges and Opportunities in Spatial Data Analysis.”
Spatial data takes many forms, including the space within robots or between proteins, collections of shapes or measures, and physical models and measurements from new sensing technologies. These data sets often contain intrinsic, nonlinear, low-dimensional structures hidden in complex, high-dimensional input representations.
To uncover these hidden structures, algorithms and data structures need to adapt to local changes in scale, recognize multiscale features, represent the intrinsic space underlying the data, compute with coarse approximate distances, and integrate heterogeneous data into meaningful distance functions. Sheehy will develop new data structures, models of computation, sampling theories, sampling algorithms, and metrics that can search, represent, and summarize these data sets efficiently.
Assistant professor of psychological sciences (CLAS) Ian Stevenson was awarded $452,340 over five years for his project, “Statistical Tools for Tracking Synaptic Plasticity in Neural Spike Data.”
Stevenson will use this award to develop and validate new statistical tools that model how synapses between neurons in the brain change over time. Synaptic plasticity – the strengthening or weakening of synapses – underlies learning, memory, and recovery from injury. Although plasticity has been demonstrated in controlled experiments with a few neurons, it has so far been difficult to measure in natural settings where many neurons interact. These new tools will make measurements of plasticity more accurate and help characterize how large networks of neurons process information.
The education component of this project includes developing new training programs that allow students to gain expertise in both neurophysiology and data analysis. Stevenson also hopes to improve training in systems neuroscience broadly by creating open-source software, online tutorials, and course material for experimentalists learning neural data analysis.
Assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering Arash Esmaili Zaghi received a four-year award for $519,967 for his CAREER project “Promoting Engineering Innovation Through Increased Neurodiversity by Encouraging the Participation of Students with ADHD.” Zaghi, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), will generate a research base to include students with ADHD through the integration of research and education.
The research objectives of this project are to determine the cognitive constructs related to ADHD characteristics that can predict creative potential, the factors and features of educational systems that mediate or moderate the academic performance of engineering students with ADHD characteristics, and the extent to which the engineering products of neurodiverse teams of students are more creative than the products of homogenous teams.
Zaghi’s team will also design both a summer research program for ADHD high school students and an academic year program for ADHD undergraduate students to improve their experience and encourage them to pursue graduate studies.
Assistant professor of marine sciences Kelly Lombardo has received a Young Investigator Program (YIP) award from the Office of Naval Research (ONR) for her proposal, “Advancements in the Prediction of Littoral Quasi-linear Mesoscale Convective Systems.”
Lombardo’s project addresses a global atmospheric phenomenon known as littoral quasi-linear mesoscale convective systems that impacts coastal and offshore regions. The heavy rains, flash flooding, high winds, meteotsunamis (meteorological tsunamis), and other destructive weather hazards associated with these storms can cause severe damage to coastal facilities and communities. The project will use numerical simulations to better understand and improve forecasting of these storms, which will help preserve Naval operations and enhance public safety in coastal regions.
Julian Norato, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, was awarded $329,000 from the Office of Naval Research’s Young Investigator Program. His research advances a computational framework to explore the design concepts of structures that are made of composable materials. Composable materials have properties that can be spatially controlled to various extents by manufacturing processes, including composite materials, functionally graded materials, and multi-material mixtures that can be obtained via additive manufacturing techniques. This framework will aid the designer by automatically producing optimal structural concepts starting from a blank design envelope.
In particular, these concepts are made of geometric shapes that can be manufactured with existing techniques (such as curved plates and bars), and take advantage of the orientation-dependent properties of composable materials. This design capability has applications across Naval structures, including aircraft and ship structures. The potential reduction in weight resulting from novel concepts obtained with this capability will result in improved mission performance, including longer ranges, increased payload, and/or decreased fuel consumption.