Five early-career professors win NSF development awards

Researchers studying the formation of the Earth’s crust, ways of identifying students at risk of failing, and wearable technology for daily-life applications are among those at Cornell who recently received National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Awards.

Over the next five years, each researcher will receive approximately $500,000 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.

Recent Cornell recipients:

  • Megan Holycross, assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences (Cornell Engineering), will further her research into the origins of the Earth’s continental crust. She will study the hypothesis that the oxidized signature of arc magmas, the building blocks of continental crust, is due to the transfer of sulfate from metamorphosed oceanic crust on the down-going slab to the overlying arc mantle. A faculty fellow of the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability and the Carl Sagan Institute, Holycross will use high-pressure experiments to calibrate a new proxy for the oxidation state of subduction-related rocks based on the incorporation and valence state of sulfur in the mineral apatite. This project includes research and mentoring experiences for a postdoctoral associate, a doctoral student and two undergraduates from underrepresented groups. A hybrid capstone outreach event will be held to disseminate research outcomes to the public.
  • Rene Kizilcec, assistant professor of information science in the Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science (Cornell Bowers CIS), will use his award to continue his work on the psychological implications of AI tools in education. AI tools can promote educational attainment, STEM workforce development and national development by supporting lower-resourced educational institutions and members of underserved communities, but only if educators are willing to use them. The project will involve 3,600 U.S. educators across several large-scale studies and advance an understanding of what influences educators’ trust and effective use of AI-based education technology. The project will investigate how the framing of AI tools and their level of transparency affects educators’ opinions and intentions to use them, especially when their expectations are violated or there are high levels of uncertainty.
  • Philippe Sosoe, the Frank Spitzer and Narahari Umanath Prabhu Associate Professor of Mathematics in the College of Arts and Sciences, will use his award to further his study of probability theory – the mathematical study of random processes, including physical phenomena such as transitions from solid to liquid and gaseous phases of matter, or the flow of fluid through a porous medium. This project focuses on two central problems in mathematical statistical mechanics relating to distances in random landscapes, and the large-scale behavior of a simplified model of a phase transition on high-dimensional lattices. The first direction of research will be investigation of universal fluctuations in stationary Kardar-Parisi-Zhang models using robust coupling techniques. Educational activities will include training graduate students, organizing a summer school, and developing learning materials suitable for teaching adults in correctional environments.
  • Immanuel Trummer, assistant professor of computer science (Cornell Bowers CIS), will use his award to make database-management systems more user-friendly for lay operators. Currently, the performance of systems that process and manage large datasets are dependent on a variety of adjustment (tuning) decisions, which can make it hard for nonexpert users to optimize the system’s performance. This project is aimed at creating automated tools that extract useful information for database-tuning from a variety of text documents, which would reduce the need for highly specialized workers in industry. All project outcomes will be integrated into a software package for automated database tuning, using text documents as input, and will be released to the public. The project will also aim to create new teaching offerings, to help educate the next generation of data professionals.
  • Cheng Zhang, assistant professor of information science (Cornell Bowers CIS), will use his award to continue his work on wearable technologies that continuously track and interpret a key set of fine-grained body postures (face, hands, limbs, eyes and tongue, for instance) in daily life using low-power, low-cost and privacy-sensitive intelligent acoustic sensing technologies. As a demonstration, this project will use the new wearables to immediately improve the accessibility of computers for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals as well as people with speech impairments, by advancing American Sign Language and silent speech recognition. The research will employ an iterative and user-centered design process, will be carried out in collaboration with experts in related fields – including wearable computing, AI and linguistics – and with partners in the target community, including people who are deaf and hard-of-hearing, and those with speech impairments.

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