8 UConn Faculty Receive NSF CAREER Awards

NSF CAREER Awards support early-career faculty in establishing their research programs while also reaching out to students and community members

Top Row L-R: Alix Deymier, Clay Tabor, Xinyu Zhao, Ying Li. Bottom Row L-R: Fei Miao, Jasna Jankovic, Julie Fosdick, Gaël Ung.

Eight UConn researchers across six disciplines have received CAREER awards for 2021.  

The National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (NSF CAREER) Program awards competitive grants to support the research programs of early-career faculty who demonstrate remarkable potential to become leaders in their field.  

In addition to advancing research, these projects work to actively engage students and the community. This broadens the impact of the research and encourages students on all levels and community members to take an interest in STEM researcher.  

2021 is the second-highest number of CAREER awards for the university, second only to when UConn faculty received nine in 2019.  

Alix Deymier, assistant professor, Department of Biomedical Engineering 

Deymier will work to elucidate the relationship between skeletal composition, structure, and physiological pH in terms of how it releases ions to regulate the body’s pH.  

Bone plays an important role in regulating the body’s pH by releasing ions as it dissolves. Cases of bone loss and osteoporosis caused by pH balances are increasing. This phenomenon is also responsible for conditions like acidosis, which occurs when there is an excess of acid in bodily fluids.  

The mechanism through which bones release ions and regulate pH is poorly understood due to a lack of transdisciplinary approaches to this complex problem.  

Deymier will develop a laboratory that can apply transdisciplinary tools and investigative methods to address this question. This project will support Deymier’s long-term career goal of integrating materials science, biology, and chemistry. 

This grant will also allow Deymier to support and mentor female-identifying students in her lab through the self-efficacy education program (SEEP) and through a K-12 outreach program.  

Clay Tabor, assistant professor, Department of Geosciences 

Tabor will increase understanding of what prehistoric data can tell us about the earth’s climate millions of years ago, and how we can expect it to change.  

Tabor will utilize the most widely used data set of ocean temperature, circulation, and sea level from the past five million years to model marine isotopic response (which refers to alternating warming and cooling periods) to a number of long-term phenomena. This will help illuminate what mechanisms drive regional and global variations in marine oxygen isotopic records. 

The mid-Piacenzian period Tabor is studying is an analogue to our current trend of global warming. This research will help us understand how increasing greenhouse gas concentrations are contributing to sea level rise and ice volume loss.  

Through this grant, Tabor will develop an accessible community database and online data visualizer so that others can utilize these models and data. He will also develop workshops for graduate students and early career scientists at UConn, and a high school-level module on the ice ages.   

Xinyu Zhao, assistant professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering  

Zhao will advance understanding of flame extinction by looking at how droplets impact the extinction limit of any given mixture. 

This project will address a critical knowledge gap in flame extinction research which has, to date, largely neglected the role droplets play in complicating this process. It will have implications for energy security, environmental sustainability, air travel safety, and fire suppression. 

Droplets are ubiquitous. They are found in engines, combustors, and fire extinguishers. Droplets complicate the careful balance that determines flame extinction points.  

Zhao will produce a model that will quantify the interactions between turbulence, chemistry, multiphase transport, and radiation in droplet-laded flames. 

The model Zhao develops will be available as an open-source resource.  

Using the data generated from this grant, Zhao will develop a new UConn course and book. She will also develop a high school curriculum to inspire students to pursue careers in STEM. Zhao is partnering with the New England Air Museum to expand the impact of this work to the broader community, including under-represented groups in STEM.  

Ying Li, assistant professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering  

Li will develop a machine learning model to better understand the properties of a promising sustainable material.  

Biodegradable thermoplastic elastomers (TPEs) are a class of recyclable, sustainable polymers. TPE could be used to dampen sound or vibrations in products such as soft robotics or batteries. Unfortunately, TPEs are not yet widely used because scientists lack a solid understanding of the interplay between the synthesis, structure, and mechanical properties of TPEs.  

Li’s machine learning model will unravel this secret, opening promising avenues for understanding the mechanics of TPEs and bringing them closer to real-world application.  

The fundamental knowledge base Li’s work will create may have broad impacts for the study of soft matter in disciplines such as physics, materials science, and bioengineering. 

Li will also develop a series of free educational movies to help the public understand the mechanics of materials as it relates to the pressing need for the development of sustainable materials.  

Fei Miao, assistant professor, Department of Computer Science and Engineering  

Miao will work to improve algorithms for autonomous vehicles.  

Connected autonomous vehicles (CAVs), like self-driving cars, are becoming increasingly popular. The advancement of this technology demonstrates the strength of algorithms that can operate in uncertain environments, like roads filled with human drivers.  

Researchers lack an understanding of the relationship between communication, learning, and control for CAVs. Miao will address several key challenges through this CAREER grant. She will improve understanding of how to model dynamic states and uncertainties using shared information, how to make learning and control decisions, how to integrate learning and control to ensure safety in systems that multiple intelligent agents, whether human or AI, and quantify and validate the benefits of communication.  

This work will help make CAVs safer and more efficient. 

Miao will leverage UConn’s connections to industry and utilize its resources, including full-sized autonomous vehicles and the autonomous vehicle testing ground the University is developing at the Depot Campus.  

Miao’s project will also develop a K-12 learning platform based on the experimental results. Her outreach will devote special attention to involving underrepresented groups in research.   

Jasna Jankovic, assistant professor, Department of Materials Science and Engineering 

Jankovic is working to increase the durability of electrodes in zero-emission energy systems. These systems include fuel cells, electrolyzers, batteries, and supercapacitors. 

Jankovic will pioneer a never-before-tested comprehensive method to study and test these systems on a micro- and nano-level.  

Historically, scientists have lacked advanced characterization methods, meaning degradation mechanisms were misinterpreted or simply not understood.  

 Jankovic will investigate what undiscovered mechanisms and changes occur on the nano- and micro-level when an electrode degrades and how they impact how the device performs. She will also look at distinguishing the effects of each electrode component on the degradation process.  

Better understanding the degradation process will allow engineers to develop better, more durable sustainable energy systems.  

Jankovic will develop an educational virtual reality program to attract young people to STEM and careers in clean energy. She will also develop an entrepreneurship and research training program for undergraduate and graduate students.  

Julie Fosdick, assistant professor, Department of Geoscience  

Fosdick will investigate thermochronological signature of sediment recycling and weathering during continental growth. Sediment recycling occurs when sedimentary rocks are buried, exhumed, weathered, eroded, or transported.  

She will test the hypothesis that recycling leaves trackable signatures that reflect their multi-cycle histories.  

Fosdick will collect samples in the Sierras Pampeanas province of Argentina, which has well-preserved evidence of continental growth and other geological changes in earth’s history.  

She will identify and characterize relevant markers in these samples to advance scientific understanding of sediment recycling when the continental crust was forming. This work will have broad implications for geoscience, as it presents new ways of quantifying continental weathering and erosion rates, source-to-sink sediment budgets, and rock deformational histories.  

Fosdick will develop educational activities for high school students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and will pair them with aspiring UConn geoscience students.  

Gaël Ung, assistant professor, Department of Chemistry  

Ung will develop molecules that can aid in the development of next-generation light sources.  

Circularly polarized luminescence (CPL) is a form of light emission that has potential applications for optical displays, bioimaging, and security features on banknotes and documents.  

Currently, there are only three examples of molecular complexes demonstrating near-infrared luminescence needed for bioimaging applications.  

Ung will develop molecules that can be used readily. Additionally, his work will illuminate important information for continuing to improve the design of these molecules by developing new tools for the field.  

Ung’s project will include educational programs with the goal of encouraging students from low-income areas to pursue studies in chemistry. Ung will work with high school students in Ung’s own community and low-income, first-generation college students who typically work to support themselves during the semester.  

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