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9 Purdue researchers win 2011 NSF early career awards

April 4, 2012


Of the nine Purdue University faculty members that won the National Science Foundation's most prestigious honor for outstanding young researchers in 2011, four were women STEM faculty.
The NSF issues about 400 Faculty Early Career Development awards annually. Purdue's 2011 women recipients were Alina Alexeenko, Monica Cardella, Olga Vitek and Yoon Yeo.

Details about the Purdue awardees and their research follow:

Nanotech Forces

Alexeenko, an assistant professor in the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics, will use her grant to learn how to apply the principles of "Knudsen forces," or forces exerted by the movement of gas molecules, to the field of nanotechnology. Knowledge about the forces is needed to design high-precision thermal sensors, miniature motors and tiny machines called microelectromechanical systems, or MEMS, and to improve the accuracy of a widely used research tool called an atomic force microscope. Textbooks contain little information about the physics of Knudsen forces, although they can profoundly influence the motion of MEMS components in the presence of heating or cooling. The project includes curriculum development and work to create simulation tools and the world's largest and smallest Crookes radiometers, ornamental devices consisting of a sealed glass chamber housing metallic vanes that spin when exposed to sunlight. Knudsen forces cause the vanes to spin inside the devices, which are also called light mills.

Design Learning

Cardella, an assistant professor in the School of Engineering Education, will use her grant to study how engineering students' learning experiences in mathematics courses impact how they learn engineering design. Since design is closely tied to innovation, the impact on preparation of the technical workforce in the United States is potentially important. Cardella will use a "verbal protocol" method, which enables researchers to understand the thought process by having students verbalize how they are solving a problem. Understanding how students differ according to demographics could help increase the number of young people who choose to study engineering. About 90 students will be included in the study. The project aims to improve undergraduate engineering education, while at the same time focusing attention on mathematics education at the K-12 level. She plans to widely disseminate the project's results, including outreach to K-12 educators through workshops. The project overlaps with NSF's focus on preparing an engineering workforce with new capabilities and expertise and developing innovative learning systems.

Statistical Tools to Aid Proteomics, Metabolomics and Ionomics

Vitek, an associate professor of statistics and computer science, will use her grant to develop statistical and computational tools for the fields of proteomics, metabolomics and ionomics, which examine the interactions of groups of biological molecules and identify potential biomarkers for disease. Commonly used technology in these fields, such as nuclear magnetic resonance and mass spectrometry, create large and complex datasets that are difficult to process and interpret. Vitek will develop statistical methodology and software that more accurately identifies and quantifies proteins, metabolites and ions from these high-throughput experiments. The approach will use statistical methods and information available from existing databases to increase the sensitivity, accuracy and scope of interpretation of this data and will assist in the optimal design of targeted follow-up experiments. Vitek will use screens of the yeast S. cerevisiae as a demonstration model to benchmark the methods. Vitek also will make case studies available to the community, offer interdisciplinary tutorials and courses, and mentor students across departments to help bridge the communication gap among biologists, chemists and statisticians.

Cystic Fibrosis Drug Delivery

Yeo, an assistant professor of industrial and physical pharmacy, will use her grant to create new drug-delivery systems to help in the treatment of cystic fibrosis, the chronic lung disease caused by genetic defects. Direct delivery of drugs is challenging because of a thick mucous barrier that develops in the lungs as part of the disease. Yeo plans to create a layer of sugar-based biomaterial that can encapsulate nanoparticles and create a channel through the mucous as it dissolves. The sugars attract water and thin the mucous, allowing the therapeutic nanoparticle to slip through and reach the targeted lung cells. She is working to develop formulations that create fluffy particles that can be easily inhaled into the lungs. Yeo also is using the grant to create an outreach program to interest high school students in science. Undergraduates in the Engineering Projects in Community Service, or EPICS, program will create materials and activities for science teachers describing microparticles, their common uses and the chemistry involved.


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