13 Purdue researchers win NSF early-career awards

January 7, 2009

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Thirteen Purdue University faculty members have won the National Science Foundation's most prestigious honor for outstanding young researchers in 2009.

The Faculty Early Career Development awards range from $300,000-$525,000 in research funding over four or five years. About 400 researchers win the awards annually.

Purdue's recipients this year are Yong Chen, Demetra Evangelou, Kevin Gurney, Matthew Jones, Krista Nichols, Dev Niyogi, Zheng Ouyang, Jeffrey Rhoads, Ann E. Rundell, Chih-Chun Wang, Chen Yang, Dabao Zhang and Xiangyu Zhang.

Details about the Purdue awardees and their research follow:

Tabletop Quarks:

Chen, the Miller Family Assistant Professor of Nanoscience and Physics, will work to develop a low-cost, tabletop alternative to high-energy particle accelerators used to study the fundamentals of matter and energy. The technology will use a material called graphene, made of a single layer of carbon atoms. As a certain type of electrons, called chiral Dirac electrons, speed through the graphene, they can mimic the behavior of exotic subatomic particles, including quarks, which are studied by physicists using high-energy particle accelerators. Like quarks, Dirac electrons have no mass to start with and come in two forms, referred to as left- and right-handed versions, but can acquire mass through the way they interact with each other. Because of this likeness, researchers hope to use the tabletop method to test theories about quarks and other subatomic particles by studying the behavior of the Dirac electrons. Graduate and undergraduate students will participate in this cutting-edge research in a multidisciplinary environment of physics, material sciences and nanotechnology, and strategic collaborations will be formed with national laboratories. The educational component also features specially designed outreach activities on nanoscience directed toward exposing high school science teachers to impact a broad and diverse base of high school students. The technology will be practical for high school teachers to teach about particle and quantum physics and nanoscience. This award is funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Early Engineering Education:

Evangelou, an assistant professor of engineering education, will study how engineering affects human development. She will use her grant to study how classroom environments influence children from 3-5 years old as they begin thinking about engineering. The research is aimed at better understanding fundamental issues related to developmental engineering and how young children start thinking and learning engineering concepts. Because choices that determine education and career paths begin to accumulate from an early age, research findings ultimately may advance efforts to increase the number and diversity of students who pursue engineering careers. The research has three phases: investigate how young children perceive and learn about the engineered world around them; use the results to find appropriate ways to integrate engineering concepts into early childhood education; and focus on transformation of teacher education to include "developmental engineering" pedagogy in classroom practice. Evangelou and her team of graduate and undergraduate students will study two environments - a Head Start classroom in Lafayette and a university child-development laboratory for the children of Purdue faculty and staff - to ensure participation from a diverse student population. This award is funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

High-Speed Trigger:

Jones, an associate professor of physics, will develop critical hardware needed to trigger a high-speed detector for tracking the trajectories of subatomic particles created in the Large Hadron Collider, which will be the world's most powerful particle accelerator when it comes online next year at CERN in Switzerland and France. Specifically, the triggering device will be used in a part of the collider called the 12,500-ton Compact Muon Solenoid. Bunches of protons will collide every 25 nanoseconds, producing numerous subatomic particles. Studying the trajectories of certain particles is expected to yield vital information about the fundamental nature of matter. However, only a small portion of the collisions produce the right particles to study, meaning scientists must develop a system that automatically determines every 25 nanoseconds which events to record and which to ignore. The project involves physics and electrical engineering students, who also will develop hardware for high school teachers to use in teaching about particle physics. The equipment detects cosmic rays produced when particles such as protons from distant galaxies collide with Earth's upper atmosphere. Because cosmic rays possess similar properties as those of particles produced in the Large Hadron Collider, the portable hardware represents a low-cost alternative to particle accelerators, allowing high school students to conduct particle physics experiments. The work will build on an existing service-learning course that provides assistance to high school teachers through the involvement of undergraduate Purdue students. This award is funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Climate Change:

Gurney, an associate professor of earth and atmospheric sciences and agronomy, will extend his Vulcan Project to build a global fossil fuel carbon dioxide emissions inventory that allocates emissions in space and time. He also will generate new estimates of the non-fossil fuel net carbon exchange. In addition, he will create a virtual learning environment where students can discover, verify and apply emissions information for countries and states using a Google Earth-like interactive environment. Gurney aims to form a Web 2.0-style network in which students, instructors, researchers and the public interact, collaborate and share knowledge about fossil fuel emissions and climate change. This award is funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Genetics of Migration:

Nichols, an assistant professor of biological sciences, will use her grant to study the genetics and evolution of migration, using rainbow and steelhead trout. The research will examine the genetic basis of ecological diversity between migrating and non-migrating animals to gain a better understanding of how ecological diversity has evolved within and among species. The work also will provide an important baseline for future studies on the effects of climate change, which has been shown to impact the migration patterns of some fish species. During the project, Nichols will work with a native Alaskan village to document migration patterns of fish and to collect genetic information for use in future studies on the role of genetics, evolution and environment on ecological diversity in migrating animals. This award is funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Indian Monsoons:

Niyogi, an assistant professor of agronomy and earth and atmospheric sciences, as well as Indiana state climatologist, will collaborate with researchers across the country and in India to understand patterns and causes of changes in Indian monsoons. The project will look at changes in monsoon patterns, and, in particular, the role of land-use changes due to urbanization and agriculture on heavy rainfall events during Indian monsoons. Niyogi also will work to develop an educational and media portal that will be used to disseminate the latest science related to monsoons. A curriculum will be developed to teach young students about how different regions of the country and world affect each others' weather patterns.

Mass Spectrometry:

Ouyang, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering and electrical and computer engineering, will use his grant to develop a new configuration for the design of instruments called mass spectrometers. The instruments, which are commonly used to analyze samples in a wide range of applications from medicine to national security, work by first turning molecules into ions, or electrically charged versions of themselves, so their masses can be analyzed in a vacuum chamber. The researcher will work to improve the efficiency with which ions are transferred from the sample in air into the vacuum chamber. Previous findings have indicated the sensitivity of mass spectrometers might be improved 100 times, while handheld portable instruments could be developed with the same sensitivity as larger stationary versions. The work also includes an educational component, with about 20 students taking part in an instrument prototyping program, and also will be extended to undergraduate teaching, with students in a senior design course building their own portable spectrometers. This award is funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Good Vibrations:

Rhoads, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, will use nanotechnology and microtechnology to develop tiny mechanical devices called "resonators" for possible applications ranging from cell phones to advanced sensors and a new type of computer memory. These resonators will contain many tiny beams connected to each other that vibrate in specific patterns. The resonators could be used to amplify signals for new biosensors in medicine and research, as a new type of filter for cell phones, and for a mechanical computer memory system that harnesses vibration patterns. The research includes educational components using Purdue's nanoHUB - the Web portal of the National Science Foundation's Network for Computational Nanotechnology - as well as Purdue's Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, or SURF, program. Rhoads will develop and deploy on the nanoHUB a software tool to simulate the behavior of the resonators, a new K-12 education curriculum on emerging micro electromechanical and nano electromechanical systems, and college-level course materials and lectures associated with a new course on the systems. 

Growing New Organs:

Rundell, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering and electrical and computer engineering, will use the grant to design experimental conditions that will promote cell differentiation in desired manners. She applies "control theory to dynamical mathematical models" that predict how cells differentiate into other types of cells when exposed to specific conditions. Findings may help researchers learn how to control cell differentiation to produce biological substitutes for organs. The research integrates experiments and theory and also has educational components: the topics will be introduced in an undergraduate "feedback controls" course; taught in a graduate-level course on controlling cellular processes; and in outreach to middle-school students to highlight the beneficial contributions of engineering to society through Web-based modules, electronic fieldtrips to the Discovery Learning Research Center at the university's Discovery Park, and in summer camp activities. This award is funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Future Networks:

Wang, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, will work to develop "coded feedback" programs critical to the creation of next-generation networks designed to be more efficient and secure than today's networks. The research focuses on enabling the seamless network operation of a diverse range of many different types of  "heterogeneous services," including video streaming, file downloading and peer-to-peer connections of many participants at a time. The research, which also will provide valuable interdisciplinary training for students, is part of efforts to develop future networks that are self-adapting, or able to reroute traffic around portions of the Internet that are temporarily out of service.

Nanowire Research:

Yang, an assistant professor of physical chemistry, will study how to synthesize, or grow, a new type of nanostructure called a nanowire. These wire-shaped structures are believed to possess unique electrical properties that could allow for their use as semiconductors in devices, such as high-performance electronics. Two additional components of the research will focus on characterizing the structure's electrical properties and utilizing them in electrical devices. The project also includes a nanoscience education and outreach component for elementary, high school and college students. This award is funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Pinpointing Disease:

Dabao Zhang, an assistant professor of statistics, will develop a computer algorithm designed to help pinpoint a person's susceptibility to specific diseases and conditions. Data from mass spectrometers and instruments called micro arrays reveal the abundance of proteins and genes most critical to the onset of diseases such as cancer. The algorithm is designed to detect the "sparse signals" of key genes in data from laboratory instruments and determine which groups of genes work together to cause specific diseases. Such knowledge would make it possible to create "personalized medicine" for the early detection of disease, predict which diseases and conditions are most likely for a particular person, and determine the correct drugs and dosages for patients. The project will involve and train interdisciplinary graduate students, and research results will be disseminated through cceHUB, the Web server of the multi-institutional Cancer Care Engineering project. This award is funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Debugging Software:

Xiangyu Zhang, an assistant professor of computer science, will work to create scalable dynamic program reasoning to debug computer software. The research focuses on faster and more efficient analysis of computer program executions and automatic patching of faulty code. Zhang proposes a checkpoint mechanism that finds the root cause of the failure in a program without having to check every step. The proposed method would save time, money and computer resources such as memory. He also will apply a "slicing" technique, which identifies the small relevant point in the code that needs to be analyzed, similar to finding the one cell in an Excel spreadsheet responsible for skewing the final calculation.

Writers:    Brian Wallheimer, 765-496-2050, bwallhei@purdue.edu

                    Elizabeth K. Gardner, 765-494-2081, ekgardner@purdue.edu

                   Emil Venere, 765-494-4709, venere@purdue.edu

                   Kim Schoonmaker, 765-494-2081, kschoonmaker@purdue.edu