Nine professors win NSF early-career awards

Researchers studying statistics applications in systems biology, next-generation wireless technology and the methods by which vines climb are among the nine Cornell faculty members who recently received National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Awards.

Over the next three to 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):

Sumanta Basu, statistics and data science, Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science (Cornell Bowers CIS), studies network modeling of high-dimensional time series and nonlinear ensemble learning methods. In many areas of modern biological and social sciences, researchers and practitioners seek to gain insight into the dynamics of a complex system using large-scale time series datasets. The overarching goal of Basu’s project is to develop scalable statistical methods for learning such dynamic relationships using high-dimensional time series datasets, and provide a rigorous analysis of their properties. The research outcomes will be integrated into education and outreach activities, including training of graduate and undergraduate students.

Tapomayukh Bhattacharjee, computer science (Cornell Bowers CIS), studies ways to enable robots to improve the quality of life of people with mobility limitations by assisting them with activities of daily living (ADLs), such as feeding, dressing and bathing. The goal is to develop caregiving robots that can assist people with disabilities – C1-C4 spinal cord injuries, in particular – in performing ADLs in real-life settings by leveraging close-proximity physical interactions. Realizing that contact with other humans and objects is inevitable, Bhattacharjee hopes to leverage this physical contact to learn safe and efficient robot control policies from it. The educational component will include programming for underrepresented minorities, and the design of an interdisciplinary training program to aid in the development and use of robotic technology applications.

Judy Cha, Ph.D. ’09, professor, materials science and engineering, Cornell Engineering (ENG), studies novel electronic properties and phase transformations of nanoscale materials for device and energy applications. In recent years, a class of low-cost chemical materials, known as transition metal dichalcogenides, has been identified as promising for water-based hydrogen production to power fuel cells and as a raw material for the manufacture of chemicals. Cha’s work will explore fundamental aspects of the dichalcogenide materials and their effectiveness for hydrogen generation. The research will help pave the path to a sustainable energy and chemicals future, and will be integrated with educational and outreach activities emphasizing participation by underrepresented groups.

Debanjan Chowdhury, physics, College of Arts and Sciences (A&S), studies “quantum matter,” where electrons self-organize into cooperative states of matter governed by the laws of quantum mechanics. Chowdhury uses techniques from quantum field theory to uncover the mysterious microscopic mechanisms leading to exotic properties such as high-temperature superconductivity and new forms of magnetism. This research will be focused on a class of metals that are the “parent” states for numerous high-temperature superconductors but do not fit into our understanding of conventional metallic behavior. Chowdhury and his group will develop new theoretical methods for studying these electronic phases. The educational component will include a new podcast series on quantum materials research, workshops for high school science teachers, and undergraduate and graduate student mentoring.

Amal El-Ghazaly, electrical and computer engineering (ENG), studies ways to combine magnetism and ferroelectricity to create tunable, versatile electronic systems for telecommunications, sensing and actuation. For next-generation wireless systems to be capable enough for worldwide communications, transceivers must handle more communication bands and tune between them. Full integration of reconfigurable transceiver front ends requires both tunable electric and tunable magnetic components. To date, only integrated electric (i.e., capacitive) components are tunable. This research aims to fill the critical gap in wireless capabilities by creating tunable microwave and millimeter-wave magnetic (i.e., inductive) components. The education component includes mentoring of first-year doctoral students from underrepresented backgrounds, outreach education in juvenile detention centers, and establishing community-engaged electrical engineering undergraduate coursework.

Joyce Onyenedum ’13, School of Integrative Plant Science, Plant Biology Section, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, studies the evolution of development of climbing vines. These sorts of plants are a critical part of forest ecosystems, where they frequently outcompete and kill forest trees, but science still lacks a basic understanding of precisely how these plants perform their dramatic snake-like twining motions. Onyenedum and her group will investigate the developmental basis of twining, including how cells, tissues, hormones and molecular biology interact to build a twining vine. For the educational component, Onyenedum will launch a free educational video series, teaching plant anatomy with live dissections and animations.

Matthew Reid, civil and environmental engineering (ENG), studies the use of nature-based technologies as sustainable tools for water quality protection. Nitrate from agricultural and stormwater runoff are among the most intractable drivers of water quality impairments in the U.S., contributing to conditions that adversely impact surface water systems. Woodchip bioreactors are promising and scalable biofiltration systems, but are limited by the slow release of the woodchips’ bioavailable carbon. Reid’s overarching goal is to leverage and control the redox biogeochemical reactions that regulate the mobilization of bioavailable carbon from woodchips and other lignocellulosic residues. This project will include outreach to rural high school students in central New York on the use of sensor technologies to monitor and control nonpoint source pollutants in agricultural watersheds.

Erin Stache, chemistry and chemical biology (A&S), explores advanced methods in catalysis to develop new polymerization strategies to access polymers with unique material properties. Stache’s lab is developing degradable polymers from monomers that are building blocks commonly found in commodity plastics. Polymerization processes will be designed to incorporate degradable functionality along the main polymer backbone. From a sustainability perspective, the design principles associated with this project have the potential to provide a promising and viable solution to the current challenges related to the widespread usage of non-degradable commodity plastics. Training workshops will be developed to encourage the public to make an impact in their households and communities.

Xin Zhou, associate professor, mathematics (A&S), studies differential geometry and calculus of variations, including minimal, constant mean curvature (CMC) and prescribed mean curvature (PMC) surfaces, which are mathematical models of soap films, soap bubbles and capillary surfaces. Geometric variational theory (GVT) is the major method for proving the existence of these types of surfaces; with this award, Zhou will conduct research projects on the existence of minimal, CMC and PMC surfaces by further advancing GVT. The educational component will include developing new curricula for graduate research topic courses, recruiting and mentoring Ph.D. students and postdocs, and organizing an upstate New York workshop for scholars and students in geometry and analysis, to encourage research and collaboration.

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