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Five professors win NSF CAREER Awards

Assistant professors Chris Alabi, Nandini Ananth, Catherine Hartley, Katie Keranen and Ankur Singh have all received National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Awards, which support research activities of teacher-scholars who most effectively integrate research and education within the context of their organization’s mission. Along with their research, awardees also engage in educational outreach activities as part of their grant fulfillment.

Alabi, whose five-year award is for $500,000, teaches in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. His group studies sequence-defined short polymers with chemical and biological properties that can be dictated by controlling the composition and relative arrangement of the building blocks. His award will advance his group’s work toward further developing novel, efficient methods for the synthesis of sequence-defined, multicyclic 3-D structures, with potential applications in biological systems. In addition to providing research training to graduate and undergraduate students, an ”Ambassador Program” is being developed to train and equip high school students to share their science and engineering knowledge.

Ananth, who joined the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology in 2012, will receive $648,248  over the next five years for her research. Her group aims to develop new theoretical methods to uncover a detailed, atomistic-level picture of the factors that drive efficient electron and energy transport in material systems. The long-term goal of her work is to develop a complete array of theoretical methods that provide general, transferable design principles for materials relevant to renewable-energy technology. The use of mathematical tools to understand chemical reactions is central to the proposed work and is reflected in the educational outreach component, which involves working with high-need school districts to develop lesson plans involving the gradual incorporation of mathematical tools in science classrooms.

Hartley, who teaches psychology in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medicine, will receive $649,954 over the next five years. Hartley studies adolescent decision-making and the effect that their choices have on future outcomes. Her work will test whether risky and impulsive choice may stem in part from developmental changes in two specific aspects of how individuals learn from experience: the relative weighting individuals place upon positive versus negative outcomes of past actions, and the degree to which individuals form and recruit mental models of the potential future consequences of their actions. Hartley’s work has the potential to provide a mechanistic account of how reinforcement learning mediates the dynamic relationship between brain and behavior over the course of development.

Keranen, whose five-year award of $585,000 began Feb. 1, studies earthquakes occurring near oil and gas production wells, occurrences of which have surged in number and public visibility within the U.S. in recent years. These “induced seismicity” events could be triggered by pressure changes in subsurface rock layers resulting from injection or withdrawal of fluids. The award will help Keranen acquire seismic data using long-term and dense passive seismic networks, encompassing regions of high-volume wastewater disposal near known large faults. Data will be used to monitor the seismic or aseismic nature of pressure propagation away from active wells, and to probe the seismic responsiveness of the local faults. Keranen joined the faculty in the College of Engineering’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences in July 2013.

Singh, whose work on biomaterials-based 3-dimensional hydrogels could have a profound effect on stem cell and other biomedical research, will receive $500,000 over five years beginning March 1. A member of the faculty in the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering since 2013, Singh studies the flow of information between cells and their surroundings, a product of the space and time of the interaction. His goal is to overcome current bottlenecks in biomaterials research by enabling the development of a new class of hydrogel that dynamically communicates with cells to control their fates. The proposed research will benefit society by developing advanced bio-functional tissues for regenerative medicine; another goal is to generate dynamic biomaterials for better understanding of stem cells and their interactions with local surroundings that will help treatment of neurological disorders.

These awards come on the heels of a banner year for Cornell in terms of NSF CAREER Award funding. In 2015, 12 Cornell assistant professors were granted funding totaling more than $2.3 million. Included among them was a five-year award of $480,000 to assistant professor of physics Michael Niemack, who is developing a new instrument to study the most distant signals arriving on Earth, the Cosmic Microwave Background. These faint radio signals are thought to originate from the Big Bang at the beginning of the universe.

Other award winners last year were: Nicole Benedek, Materials Science and Engineering; Eve Donnelly, Materials Science and Engineering; Kyle Lancaster, Chemistry and Chemical Biology; Julius Lucks, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering; David Matteson, statistical science and social statistics in the ILR School; Nozomi Nishimura, Biomedical Engineering; Thomas Ristenpart, Cornell Tech; Elaine Shi, Computing and Information Science; Nicolas Templier, mathematics; Kilian Weinberger, Computing and Information Science, and; Zhiru Zhang, electrical and computer engineering.

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Melissa Osgood