8 Purdue researchers win NSF early-career awards in 2013

March 31, 2014  

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Eight Purdue University faculty members won 2013 Faculty Early Career Development awards from the National Science Foundation, one of the most prestigious NSF honors for outstanding young researchers.

The NSF issues about 400 Early Career awards annually. Purdue's recipients were Niklas Elmqvist, Brent Jesiek, Erika Kaufmann, Oana Malis, Karen Marais, Li Qiao, Jianlin Xia and Pablo Zavattieri.

Details about the Purdue awardees and their research follow: 

Ubiquitous Analytics

Elmqvist, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, will address the fundamental question of how to use the existing system of networked devices to make sense of and exploit massive amounts of data anywhere and at any time. Assembling these devices into unified "sensemaking environments" would enable deep analysis in the field. Examples include managing heterogeneous data in scientific lab notebooks, bolstering undergraduate classroom learning with examples, manuals and videos; and supporting police investigation by linking facts, findings and evidence. The concept might stimulate the digital economy by supporting fields such as design and creativity, command and control, and scientific discovery. The project introduces a comprehensive new approach called ubiquitous analytics. 

Boundary Spanning

Jesiek, an assistant professor of engineering education and electrical and computer engineering, will investigate how engineering degree programs can enable students to act as "boundary spanners" who can communicate, collaborate and coordinate across organizational, disciplinary, geographic, demographic, stakeholder and other boundaries. Such skills are increasingly necessary for engineers to function effectively in a global workforce. The project will investigate the nature of boundary-spanning competencies both in degree programs and the workforce, as well as explore how degree programs can enhance these competencies. The study will include work to develop a measure to assess key dimensions of boundary-spanning competence in engineering practice. 

Understanding Nanomaterials

Kaufmann, an associate professor of mathematics and physics, will work to better understand physical properties of new nanomaterials by applying modern mathematical techniques. A better understanding of the physical properties of new nanomaterials could lead to improvements in photovoltaics and increased effectiveness of solar cells, and the work will lead to the development of new general techniques that can be applied to other fields as well. She is working to develop methods that apply noncommutative geometry, algebra and representation theory, singularity theory, differential geometry and condensed matter physics. This interdisciplinary effort brings together tools from mathematics and physics and fosters dialogue between the two disciplines. Kaufmann also will develop a combined math-physics course for undergraduates and an interactive blog about questions from math and physics.  

New Optoelectronics

Malis, an assistant professor of physics, will demonstrate a type of laser that could fill the need for ultrafast compact light sources tunable in the near-infrared range and enable a new class of optoelectronic devices. These devices could facilitate compact, affordable consumer systems and surpass the commercial success of blue nitride lasers, widely used in the semiconductor industry and for consumer products such as LED lights and blu-ray players. Malis will demonstrate a non-polar nitride cascade laser with engineered quantum charge-transport along the polarization-free direction to eliminate the adverse effects of built-in polarization fields. Broader impacts of her research program include educational programs for grades 7-12 students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds in Central Indiana. 

Systems Engineering

Marais, an assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics, will explore the causes of systems engineering failures in large projects in a three-step process: a detailed analysis of past system engineering failures to identify deficiencies in systems engineering; investigations of systems engineering in practice within industry and government organizations; and use of these findings to improve systems engineering curricula and delivery methods. The research may help to develop a foundation that is informative and can be adapted to a broad range of circumstances and industries, such as mining, oil and gas, chemical, and aerospace, to guide design and operational choices that prevent or mitigate failures. 


Qiao, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics, will focus on understanding the mechanisms of spontaneous combustion of hydrogen and oxygen mixtures in nanobubbles generated by water electrolysis. The study is aimed at bridging the gap between nanoscience and traditional combustion science. Potential benefits include understanding ignition and combustion at nanoscales, with applications in small energy systems and machinery and fire safety. Experimental efforts will concentrate on measurements of bubble size, growth dynamics and temperature within the bubble. The educational program calls for public outreach, dissemination of research through a popular nanoscience website, research opportunities for undergraduate students, and recruitment and mentoring of women engineering graduate students." 

Advanced Computations

Xia, an associate professor of mathematics, is working with innovative and systematic mathematical matrix computations that lie at the heart of most scientific computation tasks. The project will result in practical ways to reveal and use inherent structures within large-scale matrices, which will further yield fast and reliable algorithms. The work has applications in many complex numerical problems such as seismic imaging, signal processing, nanostructure modeling and electronic-circuit simulations. The project will result in freely available open-source packages for practical applications, as well as courses and tutorial and test materials for educational outreach programs that can stimulate the interest and achievement of students from diverse backgrounds. 

Advanced Materials

Zavattieri, an assistant professor of civil engineering, will investigate the structure-property relationship of extremely tough biological composites found in some marine organisms. The work will use a combination of computational and experimental research. It will particularly focus on the synergistic role of hierarchy, geometrical patterns and size scales of specific features in the microstructure and interfaces observed in some extraordinarily strong natural materials. A large commercial demand exists for new paradigms of design and development of advanced high-performance structural materials with high strength and durability, low-cost and renewability. Zavattieri will study biological composite materials that can achieve high toughness without sacrificing stiffness and strength by control of nano- and microstructural features that significantly improve the mechanical performance of otherwise brittle materials. The educational component is closely integrated with the research to inspire and attract students to STEM fields. 

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

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

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