Eleven professors win NSF early-career awards

Researchers studying verification of randomized algorithms, police violence worldwide, polymer nanoparticle synthesis and robotics are among the 11 Cornell assistant and associate professors who have recently received National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Awards.

Over the next five years, each will receive approximately $400,000 to $600,000 from the program, which supports early-career faculty “who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization,” according to the NSF. Each funded project must include an educational component.

The recipients (assistant professors unless noted):

Julia Dshemuchadse, Materials Science and Engineering, College of Engineering, will use her award for research that aims to shed light on the self-assembly processes behind the growth of both simple and complex crystal structures – specifically, how different particle attachment patterns depend on the symmetry and complexity of crystal structure type, and how they vary with the chemistry of the system. The educational component of this award includes inviting teachers from rural areas in central New York to campus for an annual student-organized summer workshop, and teaching math and science at New York state prisons through the Cornell Prison Education Program.

Jillian Goldfarb, associate professor in Biological and Environmental Engineering, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, will use her funding to design next-generation processes to transform organic wastes into liquid biofuels via hydrothermal liquefaction (HTL), which directly treats wet wastes without an energy-intensive pre-drying step by processing the waste in water at high temperature and pressure. The educational components include a redesign of BEE 2510 (Sustainable Engineering Design) and original public survey research on biomass-based fuels. In a first-of-its-kind survey, Goldfarb will uncover how scientists can frame messages to garner public support for green energy implementation.

Bharath Hariharan, Computer Science, Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science, will use his award to develop technologies for computer-vision recognition systems that can identify difficult visual concepts without large datasets. Current systems must be trained on datasets of millions of images which have been painstakingly labeled by human annotators. Such datasets are difficult to create for many application domains, such as microscopy; they may also run afoul of privacy concerns. Recognition systems that can work with limited training data will unlock many downstream applications and increase accessibility. The educational component will include a workshop for high school students from underrepresented communities.

Meredith Holgerson, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, CALS, will use her award to further study pond ecosystems, which are globally abundant and ecologically significant. Ponds have higher rates of biogeochemical activity (nutrient recycling, greenhouse gas emissions) compared to lakes, which may be related to their small size and shallow depths. This research will examine the mechanisms driving ponds’ high biogeochemical activity, using field surveys and whole-pond manipulations, and includes training of undergraduates, graduate students and a postdoctoral researcher. A key feature of this project is the close interaction of researchers with public agencies that regulate aquatic habitats.

Justin Hsu, Computer Science, Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science, will use his award for his work on randomized algorithms, which play a central role in areas including machine learning, data privacy and cryptography. Like all software, probabilistic programs are susceptible to bugs; furthermore, correctness properties rest on mathematical proof, and missteps in these arguments can render algorithms incorrect before they are even implemented, which could have long-range consequences. This proposal seeks to advance the theory and practice of verification for probabilistic programs, developing technology to increase our confidence in these programs.

Sabrina Karim, Government (Arts and Sciences), founder and director of the Gender and Security Sector Lab, will use her funding to expand the scope of research in her lab to include the project “The Domestic and International Politics of Global Police.” The project focuses on understanding the political relationships among police forces, civilian governments and international police assistance donors. She will collect and analyze global data on police violence and police reforms, as well as conduct and analyze surveys of police personnel around the world. Karim will also develop an undergraduate course and master’s level program on the “The Politics of Policing.”

Qi Li, Civil and Environmental Engineering (ENG), will use her award to further her study of the fluid dynamics and hydrologic processes in the built environment. More than half of the global population lives in urban areas, which modify the atmosphere through two broad pathways: urban form (i.e., changes in surface properties) and urban function (i.e., anthropogenic activities emitting heat and mass). The goal of this project is to improve basic understanding of transport of heat and air pollutants and inform physically realistic, generalizable estimates of surface-atmosphere exchanges, leading to findings necessary for next-generation urban climate modeling tools.

Nils Napp, Electrical and Computer Engineering (ENG), develops algorithms and builds robots that can operate in unstructured, real-world environments. He will use his award to develop planning and coordination methods for robots to reliably modify their environment. The key technical aspect of this approach is to focus on approximate mathematical representations of the environment so that robots can reason about and react to the uncertain outcomes of their individual building actions. This algorithmic view of robot-environment interaction will enable new types of building applications and help address the urgent societal need for innovative construction techniques.

Samitha Samaranayake, Civil and Environmental Engineering (ENG), will use his funding to address fundamental research questions related to designing and operating transit-centric, multi-modal transportation systems, with the aim of making these systems efficient, sustainable and equitable. The technical focus will be on algorithms for designing and operating such systems, an area with key research gaps. The research will incorporate technical ideas from civil engineering, operations research and computer science, to develop new methodologies and train students with cross-disciplinary expertise. The project will involve community outreach and education efforts targeting high school and college students, as well as public agencies.

Scott Steinschneider, Biological and Environmental Engineering (CALS), will use the award to further his studies of sustainable water resources planning and management in the 21st century, which requires adaptation strategies aimed at future climate and environmental change. This work – which will be applied in the Lake Ontario eco-hydrologic system – will develop innovations in physics-informed machine learning that will enable process-guided climate simulation and hydrologic prediction that support risk-based adaptation planning. The educational component will include community engagement and knowledge-sharing with Great Lakes communities, students and other stakeholders.

Rong Yang, Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (ENG), will use her funding to support research that enables advances in the manufacturing science of polymer nanoparticles, currently synthesized via a solution-based batch process, which can limit their shape, size, chemistry and, thus, broad deployment. The aim is to develop an all-dry, scalable manufacturing paradigm that produces polymer nanoparticles – with programmable shape, size and chemistries without toxic solvents – that could be used as injectable implants or in drug delivery. The educational component will focus on active learning and broadening the participation of women in STEM entrepreneurship.

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