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Their work extends from the microscopic world to the vast South Pacific archipelago of the Solomon Islands. They explore quantum principles, characteristics of soft matter, genetics, nanotechnology, wireless networks, and species evolution. While some describe their research as basic, they often approach it by employing a mix of old-school effort and ingenuity with new-school technology and innovation. They actively collaborate with colleagues, often across disciplines, and share their knowledge in the classroom, in mentoring relationships with students in the lab, and through community outreach.

They are among the best and brightest young scientists and engineers in the country, and their research has not gone unnoticed by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Since 2006, the NSF has honored six Syracuse University professors and supported their work by selecting them for the Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program, the foundation’s most prestigious award for junior faculty, recognizing them for exemplifying “the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education, and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations.” The six are College of Arts and Sciences professors Tewodros “Teddy” Asefa (chemistry), Britton L.T. Plourde and Jennifer Schwarz (physics), J. Albert C. Uy and Roy Welch (biology), and L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science professor Biao Chen (electrical engineering). Together, they represent the most active CAREER Award recipients that SU has had in the program’s 10-year history. “It is quite an accomplishment for a private university [of Syracuse’s size] to have six active awards that cut across so many disciplines,” says Elizabeth VanderPutten, chair of the NSF CAREER coordinating committee. “A CAREER Award is a major commitment by the NSF, at all levels, to ensuring support for young faculty.”

On average, the NSF grants 400 CAREER Awards annually after sifting through more than 2,500 proposals, VanderPutten says. The awards cover a five-year period and, in SU’s case, range from $400,000 to $750,000. According to Ben Ware, SU’s vice president for research, a CAREER Award has two important impacts. “It provides research support during the crucial time a young assistant professor is working to establish a global reputation and earn tenure here,” he says. “It also provides a credential that will stay with the recipient throughout his or her career, signifying that he or she was recognized early on as a researcher with unusual talent and promise.”

As Ware points out, research in science and engineering is expensive, making external funding vital to a thriving program. There are benefits from such grants for The Campaign for Syracuse University as well. “Support for faculty research and scholarship is a priority for this campaign because it is a direct investment in the scholarly quality that defines our university,” Ware says. “The investment made in these faculty members advances their careers, enriches the educational experience of their students, and provides support for some of the most innovative and important work in the country.”

This work, Ware notes, can also lead to discoveries and developments that improve life. “We are extremely proud of these fine young faculty members,” he says. “We also regard these awards to be strong evidence that our science and engineering departments are hiring some of the most talented young researchers in the country.”

 
Photos courtesy of J. Albert C. Uy
Uy

 


BioFile

J. Albert C. Uy,
assistant professor,
Department of Biology

NSF CAREER Award: $536,421

Education: Ph.D., University of Maryland at College Park; postdoctoral fellowship, University of California, Santa Barbara

Research group: Four graduate students, three undergraduates

Research interests: Behavioral ecology; sexual selection; animal communication and signal evolution; biodiversity

Web site: jauy.syr.edu

Signaling Evolutionary Change

When evolutionary biology professor J. Albert C. Uy hunkers down in a Solomon Islands rain forest with taxidermy mounts and song recordings of the chestnut-bellied flycatcher, he’s seeking a reaction: attack or ignore. Simple, you say? Consider this: Across the archipelago, populations of this flycatcher, Monarcha castaneiventris, differ in song and plumage color (purely black, chestnut-bellied, white-capped, and white lores), so Uy must present variations of plumage and song—multimodal signals—to provoke territorial responses among the flycatchers. “If you have the right song and right plumage, they’ll attack the mount and rip it to shreds,” he says. “It’s basically a graded response. It’s best to have both signals, but after that, if you mix and match signals, the birds’ aggression lessens. And if you have the wrong signals, they don’t attack, which suggests they recognize each other as different species.”

For Uy, that’s key to demonstrating that this group of birds has evolved into separate species. Another crucial factor was discovered in the lab after banding and taking blood samples of the birds last spring during field research on two islands only 8 kilometers apart. Comparing gene sequences of black (Santa Ana Island) and chestnut-bellied (Makira) populations, Uy located a distinct fixed gene in the black population known to be responsible for pigmentation in many organisms. But here’s the twist: Genetic analysis of a black population from another small island, Ugi, doesn’t include that gene. This, of course, goes to the heart of Uy’s NSF CAREER Award research, in which he’s trying to establish the factors that shape the evolution of the bird’s multimodal signals. Among the likely candidates are the size and geologic history of each island; the density of their forests, which changes light intensity; the presence of feather-degrading bacteria; the role of sexual selection; and ambient background noise. “Nature is never simple,” Uy says. “We know they’ve changed, and that changes result in new species, but why do they change in the first place, both in song and plumage?”

As part of his work, Uy is developing an SU Abroad field course on conservation education for undergraduates. He also collaborates with conservation biologist Christopher Filardi of the American Museum of Natural History and holds community outreach meetings with schoolchildren and tribal groups. Looking to the future, he knows impending globalization and development, including clear-cut logging, could have a profound effect on the South Pacific archipelago. “The whole place is a big laboratory,” Uy says. “I talk with the groups about my findings and want them to know their islands are unique, with different species found nowhere else on the planet.”

 
Photo by Susan Kahn; research image courtesy of Tewodros Asefa
asefa

 


BioFile

Tewodros “Teddy” Asefa,
assistant professor,
Department of Chemistry

NSF CAREER Award:
$504,000

Education: Ph.D., University of Toronto; postdoctoral fellowships, University of Toronto and McGill University

Research group: Three postdoctoral fellows, seven graduate students, seven undergraduates

Research interests:
Design, synthesis, and self-assembly of novel inorganic and organicinorganic hybrid nanostructured and nanoporous materials and nanobiomaterials

Web site:
chemistry.syr.edu/faculty/asefa.htm
l

Sparking Catalysts in Nanotechnology

Materials chemistry professor Tewodros “Teddy” Asefa likes the idea of highly efficient, low-cost, low-waste manufacturing. He doesn’t worry about producing mounds of byproduct refuse either, because he works in the world of nanotechnology, where small is an overstatement. Think about slicing a meter into a billion pieces and you arrive at the size scale—nanometer—that Asefa is accustomed to tangling with. “One advantage of making things at nanoscale is the total surface area is tremendously high,” he says. “You can create 1,000 square meters from a gram of material. It’s very hard to imagine, I know, but that’s what you get.”

These surfaces are where the action is for Asefa. Working with an NSF CAREER Award, he aims to design and develop multifunctional solid-state, metal-oxide nanomaterials that can trigger synergistic, cooperative, or multiple chemical reactions simultaneously, improving reaction rates and yields. According to Asefa, upwards of 90 percent of synthetic materials require at least one catalyst in their transformation process, so the more efficient, selective, and reusable the catalysts are, the greater their benefits. By sparking chemical transformations directly on a nanomaterial or in pores placed within the material to further expand the surface area, these nanocatalysts produce other chemicals and synthetic materials efficiently. By introducing appropriate multifunctional sites into materials, Asefa also tries to produce novel multifunctional nanomaterials with potentially enhancing applications in nanoelectronics, sensing, biological imaging, and targeted drug delivery, including cancer treatments. Citing an NSF study, Asefa says 45 percent of commercialized drugs may be nanobased by 2015. “Nanoscience and nanotechnology are rapidly growing areas,” he says. “You can literally find almost anything that suits your interests related to them.”

Asefa works with several graduate and undergraduate students in his lab, helping them link their interests to the field. For instance, one student, concerned about the greenhouse effect, is exploring how to transform carbon-dioxide emissions from power plants into a polycarbonate for manufacturing water bottles. Through his NSF funding, Asefa is involved in community outreach initiatives, and is helping to develop a math-intensive chemistry tutorial program that employs honor students as peer instructors. He also has several interdisciplinary collaborative projects under way with colleagues on campus, at SUNY Upstate Medical University, and elsewhere. “I love collaboration because I not only contribute, but I also learn every single day,” he says. “This is a very multidisciplinary field, and it’s important to work at the interfaces because you see the full potential of these materials in areas like biology, engineering, and physics. Chemistry plays a huge role because you have to make the materials—and that’s where all the fun begins.” 

 

Photo by John Dowling
Chen

BioFile
Biao Chen, associate professor, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

NSF CAREER Award:
$400,000

Education: Ph.D., University
of Connecticut; postdoctoral
associate, Cornell University

Research group:
Six graduate students

Research interests: Signal processing for wireless communications; wireless sensor and ad hoc networks; multi-user MIMO networks; network security

Web site:
comlab.ecs.syr.edu/people/bchen

 

 

More Bang for the Bandwidth

Think about all those television commercials satirizing wireless networks and dropped cell-phone calls. You get the point: Everyone wants clear, crisp communication at their fingertips. For electrical engineering professor Biao Chen, that’s a challenge worth pursuing. “Spectrum scarcity is a partly natural, partly manmade phenomenon because everyone wants to use wireless networks and the gadgets they have now,” he says. “If you think of a communication channel as a pipeline, the more users you can squeeze into it, the more efficiency you can achieve, assuming you don’t need to sacrifice the users’ quality of service. This, of course, directly translates into better bottom lines for wireless carriers.”

At issue, Chen says, is how current wireless networks handle multiple pairs of transmitters and receivers (transceivers). To avoid the difficult issue of dealing with interference, existing systems assign users to non-overlapping channels. Thus if one user is occupying a channel, no one else can access it at the same time. With the support of his NSF CAREER Award, Chen is examining an alternative design that would utilize an overlay transmission, allowing multiple users to access the same channel. “If you can give two users the same channel at the same time, wireless network companies could essentially double their number of subscribers,” he says. To achieve this, Chen is combining the concept of multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) with the classical interference channel and advocates a MIMO overlay transmission scheme. According to Chen, multiple antenna transceivers are almost ubiquitous in existing base stations, and cell phones are increasingly equipped with two antennas. “MIMO itself has this intrinsic way of dealing with interference that we can take advantage of because of increased spatial dimensions in which communication is conducted,” he says. “Through careful engineering design, you can allow people to use the channel simultaneously and still get the same quality.”

Beyond the commercial potential of such an improvement, which Chen believes might take up to a decade to fully develop, this MIMO technology may also be exploited in ad hoc networks, such as those employed in military field operations. Chen says his initial interest in the technology evolved from collaborative work he did at the Air Force Research Lab in Rome, New York. Chen has several research projects under way that intend to speed up the development of this technology for both commercial and military applications. In addition, he shares his knowledge on MIMO and related areas through several courses on networking information theory and on wireless communications. This summer, he put together a short course featuring Gerhard Kramer, a colleague and collaborator from Alcatel-Lucent’s Bell Labs. The course attracted students and researchers from more than 10 institutions. Along with crediting his collaborators, Chen attributes a great deal of his success to his students. “I really enjoy the privilege of working with some tremendous graduate and undergraduate students,” he says. “Working with talented and motivated students is perhaps one of the most wonderful experiences as a professor.” 

 


BioFile

Jennifer M. Schwarz,
assistant professor,
Department of Physics

NSF CAREER Award:
$400,000

Education: Ph.D., Harvard University; postdoctoral fellowships, Syracuse University and University of Pennsylvania

Research group: One postdoctoral researcher, three graduate students

Research interests: Condensed matter, jamming, correlated percolation, biological physics, theory

Web site:
physics.syr.edu/~jschwarz

Schwarz
Photos by Susan Kahn

Schwarz

TRANSITIONAL CHALLENGES

When James Taylor sings, “Damn, this traffic jam,” chances are he’s not thinking about the physics of grinding to a halt. Leave that to theoretical physics professor Jennifer M. Schwarz, who studies “jamming”—a transition that occurs when a disordered collection of objects changes from a flowing state to a stuck state. “Jamming, in a sense,” she says, “is a way of trying to understand the liquid to solid transition.”

Schwarz is particularly interested in the jamming transition of granular materials, such as sand, and of amorphous materials, whose molecules arrange randomly, rather than forming an ordered, crystalline pattern in the solid state. Examples? Window glass, cornstarch, toothpaste, polymers, even Silly Putty, Schwarz says. One question scientists debate in this relatively new field of “soft matter” is how to model the transition from a liquid state to a disordered solid. “These materials are amorphous, so there is a lot of disorder,” Schwarz says. “For physicists, it’s difficult to model disorder.”

Schwarz, with the support of an NSF CAREER Award, is using a mathematical model called “k-core percolation” to explore the phenomenon of jamming in these materials. This involves creating connected clusters by randomly occupying sites on a three-dimensional lattice structure. The occupied sites would represent, say, grains of sand or molecules of an amorphous material. As the number of occupied sites and the connections between clusters grow within a defined area, jamming eventually occurs. “This is a geometrical-type phase transition from a disconnected [flowing] structure to a connected [stuck] structure,” Schwarz says. “With the percolation model, disorder is built in because you’re occupying the sites randomly.” Another consideration is how the particles stabilize, balancing out each other’s forces—remove the right one and there goes the stability. Schwarz says there are numerous applications to the real world, including pharmaceutical packaging and even grain storage. Metal grain silos, for instance, can rupture when movement shifts the balance of forces. “These materials are not well characterized or well defined,” Schwarz says. “Disordered materials are very challenging from a theorist’s point of view.”

Schwarz introduced concepts about soft matter to students at the Milton J. Rubenstein Museum of Science and Technology camp in Syracuse this summer, playing with a cornstarch-and-water mixture in one demonstration. She enjoys that her work relates to everyday-life materials, but points out that even though they’re accessible, the physics behind them can be complicated. As Schwarz continues to expand her research in the field, including exploring applications to quantum systems, and to collaborate with colleagues in developing various models, she keeps in mind what initially drew her to physics. “It challenges me and allows me to be creative at solving problems,” she says. “I’m studying collective properties of lots of particles. I take a bunch of constituents of matter, model how they interact, and see what happens. It comes down to the fundamentals of what is matter as we see it.”

 

Lab photo by Susan Kahn; research photos courtesy of Britton L.T. PlourdePlourde

 

5

VORTICES IN MOTION

Physics professor Britton L.T. Plourde considers himself an optimist, but he’s well grounded in Murphy’s Law. Then again, when your research encompasses working with highly sophisticated, specialized equipment and exploring quantum mechanics—a field that requires pondering such things as the logic-defying behavior of subatomic particles—you have to anticipate occasional setbacks. For instance, in the subatomic world, particles can pass through obstacles they’d be expected to bounce off, and because of their wave-like properties, they can be two places at once. “A key question, pretty much since the beginning of quantum mechanics, has been, ‘Where is the breakdown between a quantum mechanical description of matter at the microscopic level and a description of classical physics, such as what happens if a ball rolls down a hill?’” says Plourde, a specialist in condensed-matter physics. “Is there some point in between where things stop behaving according to the bizarre laws of quantum mechanics and start behaving more classically, according to the laws of common sense?”  

When objects behave in this head-scratching fashion and maintain their characteristics—quantum coherence—Plourde takes note. With the support of his NSF CAREER Award, he probes the quantum-coherent properties of vortices—bundles of magnetic flux encircled by currents that swirl like whirlpools—as they are guided through nanofabricated superconducting structures. It’s sort of like steering a tornado through a grand prix racing course. At the NSF-funded Cornell Nanoscale Facility, Plourde and members of his research group imprint patterns onto thin films of superconducting materials, using a technique called electron-beam lithography. To reach the superconducting state, where electrical resistance vanishes, the films must be cooled to near absolute zero using various cryogenic systems, including a custom dilution refrigerator. At these extremely low temperatures, Plourde experiments with vortices, studying their dynamics, including trying to get them to “tunnel” from one location to another. Ultimately, the idea is to connect a series of these circuits with the ability to couple multiple vortices together. In a related project, Plourde explores a method called ratcheting, which allows him to direct vortices by using oscillations. “Vortex ratchets provide a model system for studying processes in nature that exhibit directed motion, such as certain biomolecular motors,” he says. “In these structures we make, the whirlpools are squashed into a particular shape that’s asymmetrical, allowing them to have ratchet behavior and go one way and not the other. We want to study these ratchets at low temperatures, which sounds easier than it is. There are some tricks to it—and headaches.

For Plourde, who closely collaborates with a colleague at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and others in the Netherlands, persistence is paramount. Through classroom lab experiments and public lectures, he hopes to interest more students and others in quantum mechanics and superconducting circuits. And one day, all of this work with quantum-coherent superconducting devices may help lead to the Holy Grail of computing: the quantum computer, which would blow away even today’s most powerful classical computers, using elements known as “qubits” in a superconducting environment to store and process information. “Building a practical quantum computer is a daunting challenge,” Plourde says. “But so far it doesn’t seem completely impossible, so that’s what keeps people going.”

 


BioFile

Britton L.T. Plourde,
assistant professor,
Department of Physics

NSF Award:
$500,000

Education: Ph.D., University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; postdoctoral fellowship, University of California, Berkeley

Research group: Three graduate students

Research interests: Quantum coherence, vortex dynamics

Web site:
physics.syr.edu/~bplourde

 

Photos by Susan KahnWelch

PIECING TOGETHER A GENETIC PUZZLE

For Myxococcus xanthus, life is mostly feast or famine. A rod-shaped, single-cell inhabitant of the soil, the bacterium organizes millions of its kind into a swarming multicellular organism that attacks and feeds on other bacteria. Likewise, when food is scarce, M. xanthus self-assembles into a unified fruiting body with thousands of spores, preserving itself in dormancy until it encounters its next meal. These two “emergent behaviors”—known as tracking and development—are central to the focus of molecular biology professor Roy Welch’s research. “My interest is in putting the pieces of a genetic puzzle back together, rather than just figuring out one more piece,” Welch says. “I needed the simplest developmental model organism I could find that formed a multicellular structure and that’s how I stumbled on Myxococcus xanthus.

According to Welch, the bacterium has a single, circular piece of DNA that’s about nine million base-pairs long and encodes about 7,000 genes. As part of his NSF CAREER Award project, Welch is examining the role played by transcriptional regulators—proteins that bind to DNA and control gene expression—in dictating these two distinct emergent behaviors. “Imagine each one of the genes encoded with proteins that do something—such as catalyze an enzymatic reaction, which builds a structural piece of the cell that drives some internal motor,” he says. “There’s no intelligence behind it, just a set of instructions, not unlike a computer program.”

By studying such patterns of self-organization, Welch hopes to better understand how these simple organisms communicate and cooperate, forming networks to carry out complex behaviors. “We know what some genes do and control, but if we disrupt part of them, how does that affect their ability to make patterns?” he asks. “With the idea of emergence, you have a nearly countless collection of parts, each of which is obeying its individual set of instructions but forms some global pattern.”  Working with an interdisciplinary student research group in his lab, Welch integrates genomics, computer analysis, microscopy, and experimental genetics into his studies. He also closely collaborates with other scientists studying the M. xanthus genome, and is helping construct a database that allows all to share genetic information about it. One day, Welch would like to see Myxococcus xanthus become the first fully understood multicellular system, in which the function of every gene and interaction is known and can be recreated. “I think that’s possible given enough funding, interest, and willpower,” Welch says. “My immediate goal is to start putting together these networks and relating them to global patterns to try to figure out how emergent behavior is responsible for the formation of multicellular structures, and how molecular interaction and functional genetics are responsible for the emergent behavior in that.”

 


BioFile

Roy Welch, assistant professor, Department of Biology

NSF CAREER Award:
$750,000

Education: Ph.D.,
University of Wisconsin-Madison; postdoctoral fellowships, UW-M, and Stanford

Research group:
One postdoctoral fellow, three graduate students, and three undergraduates

Research interests:
Molecular aspects
of signaling among a homogeneous population of bacteria

Web site:
biology.syr.edu/welch

 

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