UChicago scientists collect plethora of awards

Faculty members in the Physical Sciences Division have accumulated numerous honors and awards in recent months, including two National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Awards and four 2012 Sloan Research Fellowships.

Also receiving NSF CAREER Awards were two faculty members of the Toyota Technological Institute at Chicago, a campus-based affiliate of UChicago’s computer science department.

UChicago scientists receiving NSF CAREER Awards were Daniel Holz and David Schuster, assistant professors in physics. The NSF presents CAREER Awards to junior faculty members who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education, and the integration of education and research.

Holz will use his $600,000 CAREER Award to fund a project titled “Hearing and Seeing the Universe Through Multi-Messenger Astronomy.” He will study how black holes and/or dead, compact stars spiral toward one another and eventually merge. These events produce copious gravitational waves, and are thought to be associated with gamma-ray bursts, which are some of the most powerful explosions in the universe. 

In particular, Holz explores how the combination of electromagnetic (such as optical, gamma-ray, and X-ray) telescopes and future gravitational-wave observatories can elucidate these spectacular events. “Questions to be explored include how often these sources happen, how we might detect them both in gravitational waves and electromagnetically, and what we might learn from them,” Holz said. He is particularly interested in the powerful cosmological measurements that multi-messenger observations will enable.

Schuster will use his $600,000 CAREER Award to support his project, “Developing Hybrid Quantum Systems Using Superconducting Circuits.” He will pursue experiments that isolate single electrons floating on superfluid helium—an exotic state of matter that exists only at temperatures just a few degrees above absolute zero—to observe their complex interactions with light, superfluid waves and each other.

“This will be accomplished by employing the most advanced tools of experimental science,” Schuster said, including nanofabrication, ultra-low temperature physics and quantum computing electronic devices. A better understanding of the phenomena under study eventually could lead to quantum computers that would store data in individual electrons, use little power and exponentially speed some types of computations.

TTIC assistant professors Jinbo Xu and Yury Makarychev also have collected two NSF CAREER Awards.

Xu has received a $500,000 CAREER Award for a project titled “Exact and Approximate Algorithms for 3D Structure Modeling of Protein-Protein Interactions.” The project will include the development of mathematical formulas and software that could find a wide range of biological and biomedical applications.

Makarychev will devote his $500,000 award toward research on “Metric Geometry Techniques for Approximation Algorithms.” This project will include an effort to develop efficient algorithms for addressing many complex problems in science and engineering that defy an easily computed solution.

Xu and Shuster also were among 126 U.S. and Canadian researchers to receive $50,000 Sloan Research Fellowships for 2012. The fellowships are given to early-career scientists and scholars whose achievements potentially identify them as rising stars, the next generation of scientific leaders.

Joining Xu and Schuster as 2012 Sloan Research Fellows are Jacob Bean, assistant professor in astronomy & astrophysics; Gregory Engel, assistant professor in chemistry; William Irvine, assistant professor in physics; and D. Allan Drummond, assistant professor in biochemistry and molecular biology.

Bean conducts observational studies of planets outside the solar system with ground- and space-based telescopes. He also is building new instruments as part of the push toward identifying Earth-like planets around other stars.

As a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, Engel helped to uncover the quantum mechanical principles that underlie photosynthesis. Now he is developing new approaches for the observation, measurement and control of materials that are sensitive to light on a subatomic scale. In addition to his Sloan Fellowship, he also has received the 2012 Coblentz Award, which the Coblentz Society presents annually to an outstanding molecular spectroscopist under the age of 40.

Irvine pursues research in soft condensed matter, such as fluids and foams, and in theoretical and experimental “knotted fields.” A common theme in his research is the strong role played by geometry and topology, a branch of mathematics that deals with the holey-ness of objects, in the underlying physics.

Drummond studies the range, frequency and consequences of errors in cellular protein synthesis. His work is featured on the Science Life blog.

Two other honors complete the long list of awards that UChicago physical scientists have received this year.

Jacob Waldbauer, assistant professor in geophysical sciences, is lead author of a paper that has earned a 2011 Cozzarelli Prize from the National Academy of Sciences. Waldbauer’s paper, titled “Microaerobic Steroid Biosynthesis and the Molecular Fossil Record of Archean Life,” appeared in the Aug. 16, 2011, issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The PNAS editorial board selected six papers the journal published in 2011 to receive the Cozzarelli Prize. The top papers were chosen from more than 3,500 research articles that appeared in PNAS last year. Waldbauer and his co-authors, Dianne Newman, now of the California Institute of Technology, and Roger Summons, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, were honored for this work in late April in Washington, D.C.

The 2012 Mr. and Mrs. Sun Chan Award in Organic Chemistry will go to Chuan He, professor in chemistry.

He will receive the $2,000 award, presented for an outstanding organic chemist under the age of 45, at the biennial International Symposium for Chinese Organic and Inorganic Chemists. The symposium will meet next August in Lanzhou, China.

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