Four SU professors receive prestigious ‘CAREER’ awards from National Science Foundation
Two chemists, two physicists land one of NSF's top prizes
Four professors in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences have received Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) awards—the highest honor given by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in support of early-career development activities of teacher-scholars.
The recipients are Arindam “Ari” Chakraborty and Daniel A. Clark, both in the Department of Chemistry; and Stefan W. Ballmer and M. Lisa Manning, in the Department of Physics. All four are assistant professors.
“This is an unprecedented number of CAREER awards for The College,” says Dean George M. Langford. “We are extremely proud of our recipients, all of whom integrate research and education within the context of our institutional mission. These awards exemplify the importance we place on faculty excellence in interdisciplinary teaching, research, service, and enterprise.”
Each CAREER award is approximately five years long and contains a research and education component. It also provides each recipient with generous financial assistance, mainly for research staff, equipment, and educational work.
Ari Chakraborty is an expert in physical and theoretical chemistry, quantum mechanics, and nanomaterials. His CAREER project will involve theoretical investigation of the optical properties of quantum dots, which are particles of matter so small that their electronic properties are strongly dependent on their size and shape. His project will focus on the application of quantum dots for efficient solar-to-electricity and solar-to-chemical energy transformation pathways.
"I want to know how these properties are affected by various factors, such as size, shape, temperature, chemical composition, and structural strain,” says Chakraborty, whose work is also supported by NSF's Chemical Theory, Models, and Computational Methods Program. “Fundamental understanding of these processes can help design nanomaterials with enhanced photovoltaic and light-harvesting properties.”
According to Chakraborty, quantum chemistry algorithms and computational software developed during the project will be open-sourced and distributed to the community for free.
“The educational component is designed to assist high school students in their research and inspire the next generation of scientific researchers,” he says.
Daniel Clark studies organic and organometallic chemistry, catalytic reaction development, and natural product synthesis. His CAREER award will develop catalytic methods for the silylvinylation of alkynes, which are unsaturated hydrocarbons containing one or more carbon-carbon triple bonds. This process leads to a new carbon-silicon and a new carbon-carbon bond in a single step. When olefins (i.e. ethylene) are utilized, this methodology can create dienes--hydrocarbons with two carbon double bonds--of high synthetic value.
The objectives of Clark’s research are two-fold: to use ethylene, a cheap and abundant gas, to produce cyclic compounds that contain a diene; and to use vinylboronates as coupling partners with alkynes to create more complex diene systems.
“Successful implementation of this research will positively impact organic chemistry, agro-chemistry, pharmaceuticals, and the materials industry,” he says.
Clark will also incorporate workshops for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) educators in the Syracuse and North Syracuse school districts. Many of his lecture materials and chemical experiments will be made available for K-12 classroom use.
Stefan W. Ballmer specializes in gravitational wave astronomy. Gravitational waves are ripples in the curvature of space-time, much like waves on a pond. They are generated by cosmic collisions of black holes and other compact stellar remnants.
Ballmer's CAREER project will develop technology for next-generation gravitational wave detectors. His research will be done in conjunction with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), a multinational facility co-operated by the California Institute of Technology and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. By upgrading quantum detector technology, he will be able to “see" further into space and time than ever before.
“Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity predicts that violent cosmic events, such as colliding neutron stars, lead to tiny distortions in the space-time continuum on Earth,” Ballmer says, adding that such distortions are measured as miniscule fluctuations in the distance between suspended optical mirrors. “Using a non-classical light source, we intend to measure these fluctuations with a precision that sounded like science fiction when I joined this field a decade ago. At SU, we will develop the hardware required to detect this light."
Ballmer anticipates that the first direct observation of gravitational waves will be a major media event and will involve workshops for high school teachers and students.
M. Lisa Manning is a leader in the study of theoretical soft condensed matter and biological physics. Her CAREER award will support theoretical research and education, in hopes of understanding how disordered solids deform and fail.
"Making predictions about these materials is challenging because they respond like a solid when a small force is applied to them, and, yet, the atoms, particles, or cells comprising them are arranged like those in a liquid,” she says. “When larger forces are applied, these materials exhibit interesting flow patterns that are important in both nature and industry.”
To illustrate her point, Manning cites bulk metallic glasses, which show promise as structural materials but have not been widely adopted because they break along poorly understood crack-like fissures called shear bands. The same physical principles also show up in biology.
“Researchers have discovered that biological tissues behave like a disordered solid; therefore, cell migration in embryonic development and cancer metastasis can also be thought of a flow within these materials,” she says.
In addition to developing predictive theories for flow in disordered solids, Manning will use her CAREER award to boost retention and diversity in the STEM disciplines. Plans are underway to work with high school juniors and seniors in SU Project Advance and with SU freshmen to give them the tools they need to succeed in physics and the allied disciplines.
NSF is an independent federal agency whose mission is "to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; [and] to secure the national defense.” The NSF funds research and education in science and engineering through grants, contracts, and cooperative agreements. The foundation accounts for about 20 percent of federal support to academic institutions for basic research.