Four assistant professors win 2022 Sloan fellowships

Assistant professors Pamela Chang, Antonio Fernandez-Ruiz, Daniel Halpern-Leistner and Peter McMahon have won 2022 Sloan Research Fellowships from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The fellowships support early-career faculty members’ original research and education related to science, technology, mathematics and economics.

Chang is in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology in the College of Veterinary Medicine and the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology in the College of Arts and Sciences; Fernandez-Ruiz is in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S); Halpern-Leistner is in the Department of Mathematics (A&S); and Peter McMahon is in the School of Applied and Engineering Physics in the College of Engineering.

Pamela Chang

Antonio Fernandez-Ruiz

They are among the 118 researchers in the U.S. and Canada who received two-year, $75,000 fellowships to advance their work. Since the first Sloan Research Fellowships were awarded in 1955, a total of 155 Cornell faculty members have received an award.

Daniel Halpern-Leistner

“Today’s Sloan Research Fellows represent the scientific leaders of tomorrow,” said Adam F. Falk, president of the Sloan Foundation.

Peter McMahon

Chang’s research focuses largely on the roles that gut microbes play in regulating host physiology, including host defense and immunity. Many inflammatory diseases have been linked to shifts in bacteria that reside in hosts.

Chang’s lab develops chemical probes that track critical enzymes responsible for biosynthesizing important bacterial metabolites that regulate many key functions in the host. Her lab also characterizes small-molecule metabolites produced by gut bacteria that regulate inflammation that occurs during inflammatory diseases and host defenses against intestinal infections. Chang also develops chemical tools to understand dynamic roles of immune cells during host inflammatory responses.

Fernandez-Ruiz works to understand the neuronal basis for adaptive, flexible behaviors in animals. These behaviors are supported by finely tuned dynamics of groups of neurons distributed across brain circuits, but understanding these complex behaviors at the computational, circuit and cellular levels has been difficult due to limitations in current technologies. As a result, Fernandez-Ruiz has partly focused his work on developing new methods to more precisely inquire and manipulate brain circuit dynamics. To achieve these goals, he seeks to create state-of-the-art experimental and computational techniques.

Halpern-Leistner studies systems of polynomial equations, which are applied in many areas of science, including physics and computer science. These equations arise in geometry because many interesting shapes appear as the set of solutions of polynomial equations. Algebraic geometry explores the relationship between the algebraic properties of a system and the geometric properties of its set of solutions.

In his work, Halpern-Leistner has developed a new approach to moduli theory, a branch of algebraic geometry that studies how the geometry of sets of solutions varies as the coefficients of the equations vary. He has used this approach to solve several open problems in the subject that were inspired by high energy theoretical physics.

McMahon’s research tackles the physics of computation, and how physical systems can be engineered to perform computation in new ways that provide benefits over current widely used processors. His lab’s emphasis is on quantum computation, but he also explores other emerging technologies, including photonic computing and neuromorphic computing. Advancing these approaches could lead to computers that are orders of magnitude faster, or more energy-efficient, than current digital electronic processors.

Founded in 1934, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation is a nonprofit institution dedicated to improving the welfare of all through the advancement of scientific knowledge.

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Becka Bowyer