Thirteen assistant professors win NSF early-career awards

Thirteen assistant professors from Cornell’s Ithaca and New York City campuses have been recognized with National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development Program awards, given annually to support junior faculty members’ research projects and outreach efforts.

All awards are for five years and approximately $500,000 (minimum), and all projects have an outreach component, generally involving K-12 students and people from underrepresented communities.

This year’s winners include: Steven Adie, biomedical engineering; Yoav Artzi, computer science at Cornell Tech; Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, information science; Nicola Dell, information science at Cornell Tech; Brett Fors, chemistry and chemical biology; Damian Helbling, civil and environmental engineering; Song Lin, chemistry and chemical biology; Matthew Paszek, chemical and biomolecular engineering; Jamol Pender, operations research and information engineering; Brad Ramshaw, physics; Karthik Sridharan, computer science; Fei Wang, from the Department of Healthcare Policy and Research at Weill Cornell Medicine; and Justin Wilson, chemistry and chemical biology.

Adie, from the Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering, will receive funding for his studies regarding optical microscopy and its role in biomedical discoveries for clinical management of disease. Significant challenges remain in developing applications that require rapid, noninvasive imaging over large volumes. Adie hopes to develop new methods of image-formation between computational and hardware approaches; outreach will include experiential and interactive inquiry-based workshops for Ithaca-area middle and high school students.

Artzi will study how natural-language understanding can improve the quality and accessibility of autonomous systems, including those in self-driving cars, drones and robots surveying disaster areas. These systems give nonexpert users the opportunity to control complex systems, but current methods are limited in terms of detecting language subtleties. Artzi hopes to create a new framework for direct mapping of natural language instructions to actions.

Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil will receive funding for his study aimed at developing computational tools and understanding that can endow online discussion platforms with an artificial intuition about ongoing conversations. Unlike offline conversations, those conducted online cannot yet factor in subtle meta-conversational signals. This work introduces new methods for tracking the balance of conversational behavior of participants throughout a conversation; outreach will be aimed at empowering disadvantaged high-schoolers through hands-on interactive activities.

Dell, from the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute at Cornell Tech, will receive funding for studies aimed at developing a fundamental understanding of the privacy challenges faced by non-Western novice technology users, who may lack fundamental understanding of online risks where personal data is concerned. This research will help U.S. corporations compete in the global technology market, and enable developers to create privacy-preserving systems that respect different cultures. Outreach efforts will amplify the project’s impact on academia, industry and society.

Fors, from the College of Arts and Sciences, will conduct research aimed at developing synthetic methods for the preparation of polymers with control over chemical properties. This approach takes advantage of characteristics of visible light to enable the synthesis of previously inaccessible polymer architectures. Outreach will feature the establishment of a polymer science camp on the Flathead Indian Reservation, in collaboration with Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, Montana, to introduce Native American students to STEM research.

Helbling will receive funding for his work to improve water quality through enhanced wastewater treatment to protect public health and improve the environment. He will study the mechanisms by which organic pollutants are transformed during wastewater treatment; he’ll do this by using advanced chemical analysis to characterize organic matter in wastewater. Outreach will include opportunities for diverse groups of students to engage with water quality research through a collaboration with the Cayuga Lake Floating Classroom for pre-college students.

Lin, from the College of Arts and Sciences, will receive funding to support his quest to develop new methods for building organic molecules that contain carbon-nitrogen (C-N) bonds. More than 85 percent of the top-selling pharmaceuticals have at least one C-N bond; Lin’s goal is to establish efficient and sustainable reaction technologies that promote the formation of these bonds. Lin’s group will continue its outreach efforts by integrating key elements of their research into the education of K-12 and college students.

Paszek, from the Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, will use his funding to investigate how cells migrate in narrow spaces. All cells feature a sugar-rich coating of long molecules, called a glycocalyx, which changes dramatically in many lethal diseases. Little is known about how changes in this coating make a disease better or worse; this project will create new tools for precision engineering of the mechanical properties of the glycocalyx. Outreach will focus on increasing participation of under-represented middle and high school students in STEM subjects.

Pender, from the School of Operations Research and Information Engineering, will use his funding for research focused on reducing congestion in critical services by enabling service providers to effectively disseminate information about delays to their customers. This research will strive to enable better access to health care and emergency resources, and to streamline urban mobility, through development of smartphone apps and display message technology, which has revolutionized the way service systems interact with customers.

Ramshaw’s work will focus on a new class of metals – Weyl semimetals – that have massless electrons similar to those in graphene but are free to move in three dimensions. At present, nothing is known about how Weyl electrons interact with one another, or what new states of matter can form in a Weyl semimetal. This project seeks to discover new states of matter by subjecting Weyl semimetals to extreme conditions, such as high magnetic fields and low temperatures. The project includes an outreach component that will be made available through the American Association of Physics Teachers Advanced Lab website.

Sridharan will use the funding to work on making socially responsible machine learning (ML), a readily accessible technology that is applicable in large, multiuser interactive systems. The project focuses on making ML a plug-and-play technology, developing methods for applications such as predicting user preferences in social networks, and developing algorithms for recommendation systems that are socially responsible and do not polarize users. Outreach will advance STEM education by developing ML-related educational components.

Wang will use his funding to further his study on discrete time event sequences (DTES), which are ordered event sequences with associated timestamps such aspatient electronic health records. Computational modeling of DTES can reveal hidden event-evolving mechanisms and improve performance of endpoint analytical tasks. Wang’s goal is to develop interpretable deep-learning approaches for modeling DTES, where different mechanisms of injection, distillation and transfer of domain knowledge with deep learning models will be developed.

Wilson will receive funding for the study of mitochondria, which are critical components of a cell because they produce most of the chemical energy the cell needs and influence the cell’s survival and death pathways. Calcium ion interactions with mitochondria are crucial for their function, and deregulation of mitochondrial calcium levels has been implicated in several human diseases. The goal of the funded research is to develop small-molecule regulators of mitochondrial calcium uptake; a rural K-12 STEM outreach effort is included.

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