Three junior faculty members receive young investigator awards

Steve Koppes
Associate News DirectorUniversity Communications

Three University of Chicago scientists are pursuing separate research projects in multilinear computations, bioelectronics and synthetic quantum materials with new funding from the National Science Foundation and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

Bozhi Tian, assistant professor in chemistry, has received a 2013 NSF Faculty Early Development (CAREER) Award. These awards are given to junior faculty members who exemplify the role of teachers-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education, and the integration of education and research.

New Air Force Office of Scientific Research grants went to Lek-Heng Lim, assistant professor in statistics; and Jonathan Simon, the Neubauer Family Assistant Professor in Physics. They were among 40 scientists and engineers who received approximately $15 million in grants from the Air Force’s Young Investigator Research Program this year. The program is open to scientists and engineers at U.S. research institutions who have received doctorates or equivalent degrees in the last five years, and who show exceptional ability and promise for conducting basic research.

Tian’s CAREER Award, which provides $500,000 over five years, will support his efforts to gain a fundamental understanding of the means by which nanoscale materials and devices record the electrical signals that regulate the function of single cells. “The materials and devices proposed in this work can potentially yield highly sensitive devices for biomedical applications,” Tian said.

Last October, MIT Technology Review designated Tian as one of the world’s top innovators under the age of 35 in emerging fields of science and technology. The magazine recognized Tian for his work on “Artificial tissue that can monitor and improve health down to the level of individual cells.”

Tian’s “cyborg tissue” research is driven by the need for prosthetic tissues and organs. It also offers a novel method for testing pharmaceuticals. He envisions the day when his electrically wired single cells and cyborg tissue can be implanted directly in the human body to detect looming health issues, then either fixing the problems or sending an alert for needed action.

Technology Review noted that Tian already has developed an innovative method for measuring a cell’s electric signals with nanoscale materials and devices coated with bio-friendly molecules. His approach yields more data with far less cellular damage than conventional methods, which include the harmful piercing of cells with fine-tipped glass pipettes.

Lim’s Young Investigator Award for multilinear computing and multilinear algebraic geometry will provide $400,000 over three years. He also has a 2011 CAREER Award from NSF, which provides $550,000 over five years to study numerical multilinear algebra and its applications.

Both of Lim’s projects pertain to extending linearity, the degree to which mathematical and scientific problems are ordered and predictable rather than chaotic and unpredictable. The solution to many of these problems depends on their degree of linearity. “We know a lot about linear, or approximately linear, problems and relatively little about nonlinear ones,” Lim said. “It’s quite clear that in many areas, one needs to move beyond linearity to make significant progress.”

The challenge is to carve out a class of nonlinear problems with a special structure that is tractable. “Usually this structure would be some generalization of linearity,” Lim explained. “One such generalization is convexity. There has been enormous success in our ability to deal with convex problems in the last 30 years,” said Lim, who proposes multilinearity as an alternative generalization.

“A problem that involves multiple factors is multilinear if it has the property that when all underlying factors but one are kept constant, the problem is linear in the changing factor,” he said. His grant project outlines a way to encode intractable nonconvex problems as multilinear problems and then exploiting multilinearity to find approximate solutions.

Simon will receive $360,000 over three years to engineer a new generation of synthetic quantum materials. “A consistent theme in my work is the effort to understand how the wonderfully bizarre laws of quantum mechanics imbue materials with exotic properties,” Simon said.

How quantum mechanics (the physical laws that dominate the world at ultra-small scales) affects materials “is important both technologically and fundamentally,” Simon noted. This is because “emergent physics in strongly interacting quantum systems is truly the wild west of modern condensed-matter physics,” the physics of liquids and solids.

Whereas traditional materials consist of atoms, Simon’s synthetic quantum materials will be made of photons (light particles). “Photons normally just pass straight through one another, but we’ve come up with a way, by trapping them between two mirrors and making them interact with highly excited atoms, to make photons bounce off one another,” Simon explained.

This will allow Simon to study how the photons freeze into quantum crystals and melt into superfluids, an exotic state of matter. “Understanding what we see in these exquisitely simple yet bizarrely intricate systems will aid materials scientists in harnessing the quantum world to produce faster, more efficient transistors, and even room temperature superconductors—in short, the technology of the future,” Simon said.