A prestigious group of UConn faculty are being honored this year as the University’s latest recipients of early-career awards from the National Science Foundation, recognizing their potential as role models in education and research.
The UConn Board of Trustees and Interim President Radenka Maric recognized 10 faculty members at Wednesday’s trustees meeting, noting that the NSF has indicated others might also receive the prestigious recognition in coming months.
NSF gives about 500 of the NSF Early Career Development (CAREER) Program awards each year to universities and research institutions nationwide. UConn has in recent years been well represented, putting it on par with other elite research universities in the category.
In addition to this year’s awards – not counting any additional that are announced in coming months – UConn faculty also received eight in 2021, seven in 2020, nine in 2019, and others in previous years.
The CAREER Awards come with five-year grants that are especially valuable to support early-career faculty in their research and their career development.
UConn received as many or more awards in the past three years as many leading research institutions, Maric said, including Dartmouth College, Emory University, Georgetown University, Harvard University, California Institute of Technology, Tufts University, Vanderbilt University, Yale University, and others.
“It tells you that we are a powerhouse in (having) faculty with curiosity, with passion to teach, and with passion for science, and I think that with those faculty, we can achieve new highs,” Maric said, adding that UConn also prioritizes retaining talented faculty with support that can help them flourish at the University.
She also noted that the new CAREER Award recipients are among many young faculty that UConn has recruited in recent years, including some fresh from finishing their postdoctoral programs, and who’ve made an immediate positive impact.
“Our students come to UConn to learn from the best,” Maric said at Wednesday’s meeting as she introduced the recipients who were in attendance and invited them to describe their research to the board and guests.
This year’s UConn recipients and their schools or colleges are as follows.
• Cara Battersby, physics, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS)
• Ido Davidesco, educational psychology, Neag School of Education
• Ben Fuller, computer science & engineering, School of Engineering (ENG)
• Walter Krawec, computer science & engineering, ENG
• Tomoyasu Mani, chemistry, CLAS
• George Matheou, mechanical engineering, ENG
• Kristin Morgan, biomedical engineering, ENG
• Anna Tarakanova, mechanical/ biomedical engineering, ENG
• Xueju (Sophie) Wang, materials science and engineering, ENG
• Hongyi Xu, mechanical engineering, ENG
Five UConn faculty members had received CAREER Awards between 2012 and 2014, at which time the School of Engineering initiated monthly workshops for faculty to help them envision and formulate their applications for consideration.
Engineering won three CAREER Awards in the next year, and the UConn Office of the Vice President for Research – led by Maric as vice president, before her appointment as interim president – launched CAREER workshops in 2015.
It expanded them in 2016 to coordinate with schools and colleges, while at the same time CLAS was offering specialized workshops for its faculty.
“In seven years, we have seen our total of NSF CAREER awards increase from a handful to 60, representing tens of millions of dollars in support of UConn research,” Pamir Alpay, interim vice president for Research, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship, said recently. “The increase in awards is no coincidence. It validates the research excellence of our brilliant early career faculty members as well as the critical support UConn provides to guide them through the awards process.”
Also Wednesday, the Board of Trustees approved a wide-ranging initiative in which the University would hire “innovation faculty,” comprising established researchers and others whose success in innovation would help establish an ecosystem of entrepreneurship, job creation, and new discoveries.
UConn created the plan, “Innovation Faculty Hires & Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Initiative,” as a roadmap to improve tech transfer, entrepreneurship, and innovation through research that leads to new patents, companies, licenses, and technologies.
In turn, that helps Connecticut’s economy grow and cements its reputation as an entrepreneurship hub with startup companies and jobs, new technologies in key areas such as clean energy and genomics, and innovations that set the foundation for more breakthroughs to come.
UConn’s plan envisions recruiting 10 “innovation faculty” members over the next five years – all with track records of entrepreneurship in targeted areas – along with the resources they would need to reach even higher levels of their work, such as their postdoc researchers, lab equipment, specialized scientific instruments, and other needs.
UConn will cast a very wide net to recruit individuals who do not necessarily come from traditional academia, and whose attributes also complement and contribute in meaningful ways to UConn’s mission and the work of their fellow faculty members.
They are likely to be people who have started companies, patented innovative technologies, used their research to create jobs, and have broken new ground in private industry and public realms.
The plan also envisions an entrepreneurial ecosystem in which those faculty members would spread those skills throughout UConn through an innovation pipeline including other faculty, students, and partners inside and outside of the University.
Funding for the plan’s various phases would require approval from the State Bond Commission.