6 Purdue researchers win NSF early-career awards

July 19, 2011

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Six Purdue University faculty members have won the National Science Foundation's most prestigious honor for outstanding young researchers in 2010.

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 2010 recipients were Alice Pawley, Sanjay Rao, Thomas Hacker, Vijay Raghunathan, Luis Kruczenski and Lyudmila Slipchenko.

Details about the Purdue awardees and their research follow:

Improved computing

Hacker, an assistant professor of computer and information technology, will develop ways to improve the efficiency and reliability of high-performance computing systems. Glitches in the hardware, software, networking and power and temperature maintenance of individual computers within a cluster lead to failures in the parallel processing necessary for high-performance computing. When these failures occur the entire application stops, leading to loss of information and increased run times and project expenses. Hacker will collect information from existing high-performance computer systems to find patterns, what triggers failures in certain computers and determine the most reliable software and hardware elements for various types of applications. He will create models that can predict which computers within the high-performance system would be likely to fail during a particular task and develop technology that allows for a more intelligent allocation of the computers within the system. By assigning the most reliable elements within a cluster of computers for a project's specific needs, failures can be reduced or avoided.

Understanding gauge theory

Kruczenski, an assistant professor of physics, will use his grant to study the duality of the string and gauge theories to contribute to a more complete understanding of what happens inside the atoms that make up matter. It is a mystery to particle physicists how strong interaction - the force that binds protons and neutrons together to form an atom - exists at the low energy of everyday life. According to existing physical theories, electromagnetic repulsion should cause these subatomic particles to fly apart. Gauge theory, which explains interactions among quarks and gluons that combine to form protons and neutrons, provides some of the answer. However, gauge theory can describe these interactions in detail only at very high energies, such as those achieved within particle accelerators. String theory, which suggests that all particles are actually tiny "strings" that vibrate in different ways, picks up where gauge theory leaves off and describes the interactions of the particles within the atom at the lower energies that exist naturally in the world around us. Kruczenski will try to apply the mathematics of string theory to gauge theory to create a detailed description of how strong interactions occur at low energies. He also will deliver an introductory lecture on string theory and particle physics at high schools throughout Indiana and on the QuarkNet Center at Purdue, a national resource for high school teachers.

Underrepresented Engineers

Pawley, an assistant professor of engineering education, will use her grant to study why some groups have remained chronically under-represented in engineering degree programs. Women represent about 18 percent of undergraduate engineering students – a proportion that hasn't changed much in two decades. Hiding in this overall fraction, however, is that the proportion of women is higher for all domestic ethnic minority groups than for white students. To address issues of underrepresentation while thinking about both gender and race, Pawley will use students' narratives to study how under-represented engineering students experience and interact with engineering educational institutions to better understand how different institutional structures affect persistence and success. The project will develop and then disseminate narrative-based tools, such as "personas" and "informances," to help policymakers learn how to better structure institutions to meet more needs of under-represented students. A persona is a fictional profile based on many students' narratives that can help policymakers learn from many stories at once, while an informance - a combination of the words information and performance – can help them embody students' experiences in engineering education. These tools may enable Pawley to teach policymakers to "learn from small numbers" of underrepresented engineering students, rather than through statistics alone.

Robust, Reliable and Secure Enterprise IT Operations

Rao, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, will use his grant to develop ways to help enterprise operators design their networks to meet desired high-level objectives, such as security and performance requirements. If successful the research will change how enterprise operators manage their networks, leading to large cost-savings for IT organizations and enable the creation of more reliable and secure networks. Large networks, such as those operated by companies and institutions, contain hundreds of devices called routers and switches, which are programmed with critical operating configurations. The configurations embed the policies, such as IT security requirements, necessary for the successful operations of the organization. The process of creating and maintaining such configurations is error-prone, and errors have been known to result in catastrophic consequences such as cyberattacks and large network outages. Rao's project involves developing more intuitive ways to express network policies and automated approaches to embed and validate these configurations. This effort is particularly important given that IT organizations have recently begun outsourcing management to remote servers to save money, a trend commonly referred to as cloud computing. Rao's work will develop the techniques that enable IT operators to complete the migration safely. Rao also is creating a network configuration data repository available to academic researchers, introducing new lecture material on enterprise management in the networking curriculum and participating in summer camps for K-12 students.

Embedded Systems

Raghunathan, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, will use his grant to develop software and hardware for reliable operation of wireless "embedded" systems. Embedded systems are used in a variety of applications, including tiny remote military sensors and microprocessors in cars and appliances, and more than 98 percent of all processors sold today end up in these systems. A major obstacle in ensuring reliable operation in embedded systems is the fact that, after the systems are deployed, designers have limited ability to remotely monitor and control the devices. Raghunathan will work to address this limitation by devising new ways of architecting the hardware and software in these systems so that they can be better observed and controlled after they are put in the field. The project has the potential to  impact the adoption and acceptance of wireless embedded systems in a variety of consumer and "mission-critical" applications, such as those involving military technology. In addition to enhancing graduate and undergraduate courses on embedded systems at Purdue, results from the project are impacting the broader community through  programs at the university such as the Engineering Projects In Community Service.

Energy harvesting in photosynthesis

Slipchenko, an assistant professor of chemistry, will develop computational tools to investigate excitation energy transfer and photo-protection during photosynthesis. Understanding light harvesting processes on the molecular level is necessary for engineering photovoltaic devices and solar cells. Slipchenko will develop and refine computational techniques that combine quantum mechanics and molecular mechanics to more accurately model the complex proteins involved in photosynthesis. She will create new algorithms that capture important details and characteristics of photosynthetic proteins while conserving computational resources. With the developed methodologies, Slipchenko will study and model several proteins found in the main photosynthetic complexes of plants to better understand the mechanisms that allow these proteins to efficiently collect and transfer energy from the sun, as well as protect themselves from damaging amounts of heat and light. She also will develop an online tutorial that visually demonstrates the main mathematical concepts used in modern electronic structure models. The tutorial will aim to engage undergraduate and graduate students in the field of computational quantum chemistry and will be incorporated as a part of Purdue's nanoHUB.

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

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

Related website: 
NSF Early Career Development awards