Two UChicago scientists win fellowships fostering ‘blue-sky’ research

Profs. David Freedman and Supratik Guha chosen for Vannevar Bush program

Two University of Chicago scientists have earned fellowships through the U.S. Department of Defense that support innovative, “blue-sky” research at the limits of today’s technology.

Profs. David Freedman and Supratik Guha are among the 11 scientists and engineers chosen for the 2018 Vannevar Bush Faculty Fellowship program—awarded every year to conduct foundational research in fields including quantum information science, neuroscience, nanoscience, novel engineered materials, applied mathematics and statistics.

A professor of neurobiology, Freedman studies the mechanisms by which brains process and adapt to their environments. Guha, a professor in UChicago’s Institute for Molecular Engineering and director of the Center for Nanoscale Materials at Argonne National Laboratory, studies new materials and devices for electronics, sensing and energy. The awards are typically $3 million over five years.

Freedman’s lab works to decode how neurons process and react to their environments. They saw an opportunity to use that expertise to help artificial neural networks, which still struggle with tasks that the brain is incredibly good at—like taking knowledge from previous situations and applying it to new ones. His project will seek to deepen our understanding of the ways the brain generalize knowledge, and explore how to transfer it to artificial neural networks.

“For this proposal, we put our heads together to look at the most ambitious questions we could explore,” Freedman said. “We’re thrilled to have the flexibility to pursue the theoretical limits of what we can do in this area.”

Guha’s project studies the science behind new ways of creating single-crystal semiconductor thin films. This is relevant to a key limitation of processing for electronics like solar cells and microprocessors today: The crystalline semiconductor layers that make them up must be laid on top of a high-quality crystalline wafer.

“We’re very pleased with this award, which gives us the freedom to focus on long-term, fundamental semiconductor materials science with a strong high-risk, high-payoff component,” said Guha. “The ability to create single crystal layers without the need for an atomically matched underlying wafer will revolutionize semiconductor manufacturing.”

The fellowships aim to foster long-term relationships between the Department of Defense and university researchers—two groups whose paths don’t always cross regularly, Freedman said, so they’re looking forward to new connections.

The fellowships named for Vannevar Bush, who directed wartime scientific research and development during World War II. After the war, he authored a key report calling for expanding government funding in science and technology, calling basic research “the pacemaker of technological progress.”