Four UChicago scholars receive early career fellowships from Alfred P. Sloan Foundation

University Communications

Four University of Chicago scholars—Dorian Abbot, assistant professor of geophysical sciences, Emir Kamenica, associate professor of economics at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, Jacob Waldbauer, the Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Geophysical Sciences; and Wei Wei, assistant professor of neurobiology—have been named 2013 Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellows.

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation awards fellowships annually in science, mathematics, economics and computer science to early-career scholars of outstanding promise “in recognition of distinguished performance and a unique potential to make substantial contributions to their field.”

Dorian Abbot applies lessons learned from understanding the history of climate on Earth to help focus the search for life on other planets.

He works to understand the potential habitability of planets orbiting distant stars (exoplanets) by studying life-threatening periods of global glaciation in Earth’s history. At least two of these periods, called Snowball Earth events, occurred between 600 and 750 million years ago, and Abbot has proposed a physical model that may help resolve some of the remaining mysteries about Snowball Earth events.

The cause of and recovery from Snowball Earth catastrophes are related to the regulation of atmospheric carbon dioxide by temperature-driven weathering of continental silicate rocks, which is the same process that allows for a planet’s long-term habitability. Abbot has built mathematical models of these processes and used them to predict that waterworld planets are much less likely to be habitable than planets with some continent.

He also has considered the possibility of less traditional habitable planets. For example, in 2011, Abbott co-authored a paper about the conditions under which an earthlike planet could maintain a liquid subglacial ocean even after being ejected from its solar system. Published in Astrophysical Journal Letters, the paper’s findings inspired a science fiction article published in Nature last year.

Emir Kamenica focuses his research on microeconomics, specifically on design of informational environments, behavioral industrial organization, and dating and marriage markets.

His recent papers include “Bayesian Persuasion,” published in the American Economic Review in 2011, and written with Matthew Gentzkow, the Richard O. Ryan Professor of Economics, a Neubauer Family Faculty Fellow at Chicago Booth and a 2009 Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow.

Kamenica, who also is the Robert King Steel Faculty Fellow at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, is an associate editor of the Journal of the European Economic Association.

He joined the Chicago Booth faculty in 2006, after receiving his PhD in economics from Harvard University, and taught competitive strategy in the Fall Quarter.

Jacob Waldbauer specializes in biogeochemistry, which seeks to understand the interactions between organisms and their environments. As the sole inhabitants of Earth for more than half its history, microbes have long dominated the biogeochemistry of the world’s oceans. Using proteomics—the identification and quantification of proteins using mass spectrometry—Waldbauer is studying how microorganisms drive oceanic biogeochemistry, and he is reconstructing the history of their activities from the fossil record.

His work will connect the ecological and biogeochemical roles of microbes with a rapidly expanding catalogue of the metabolic potential encoded in their genomes. By developing a quantitative picture of how proteins underlie biogeochemical fluctuations, Waldbauer aims to produce a more precise understanding of microbial metabolism in the oceans. This understanding would ultimately enable scientists to better predict how oceanic ecosystems will respond to changes in climate and nutrient dynamics caused by either nature or technology.

Waldbauer is also interested in how marine microbes and the oceanic environment have co-evolved over geologic time. Reconstruction of this molecular record so far has generally relied upon hydrocarbons derived from a class of durable organic compounds called lipids. Waldbauer plans to add protein fragments to this record through studies of the molecular signatures of protein fossilization.

Wei Wei studies how neural circuits are assembled during development to perform specific visual tasks, such as motion detection, and how their specific, intricate wiring patterns impact visual processing.

She has developed an innovative approach, combining genetic labeling with state-of-the-art circuit-analysis techniques, to characterize and manipulate selected synapse types and to correlate synaptic-level mechanisms with circuit function.

The retina is a classic model system for studying how synaptic circuits implement and perform neural computations, she said. Visual processing begins when light strikes retinal photoreceptors. The retina collects that information and sends abstract visual features, such as color, motion and contrast, to higher brain centers through at least 15 parallel channels, each with its own dedicated neural circuit. Further visual processing of these extracted visual features occurs in higher brain centers.

“Our work is designed to provide definitive answers to the outstanding questions that remain about how these retinal circuits function,” she said. “It will also provide insight into the general principles of synaptic development and organization in sensory processing.” 

It may also contribute to better vision care. “Dysfunction of retinal circuits is the ultimate cause of visual impairment in most eye diseases,” she said. Understanding how retinal circuits process visual information during normal vision is essential for better diagnosis and developing more effective treatments for eye disease.

The Sloan Research Fellowship is for two years, and each winner receives $50,000. More information about the award is available at