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6 young ASU faculty earn NSF Career awards

TEMPE, Ariz. Six Arizona State University faculty members have earned Faculty Early Career Development (Career) awards for 2009 from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The Career program is a NSF-wide activity that is one of the most prestigious awards in support of junior faculty who exemplify 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. It provides five-year research grants to each recipient.

This year's ASU Career Award winners are Junseok Chae, assistant professor of electrical engineering; Yi Chen, assistant professor of computer science and engineering; Hanqing Jiang, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering; Baoxin Li, assistant professor of computer science and engineering; Henry Sodano, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering; and Arjan van der Vaart, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry

The Career Awards will help support each winner's research projects and education efforts. Here are descriptions of each.

Better biosensors based on nature

Junseok Chae is tackling fundamental questions about the use of molecular probes in biosensors. With such knowledge he will explore ways to construct microscale components in instruments for biological testing and research.

Chae will do this by using MEMS (micro-electromechanical systems) technology. MEMS are extremely tiny machines typically made of components 1 to 100 micrometers in size. Chae uses a natural phenomenon to assemble his MEMS devices, based on the way proteins with low molecular weight are adsorbed (how substances condense on a surface) and displaced and exchanged by proteins with higher molecular weight.

Biosensors typically use molecular probes such as DNA, RNA, enzymes and antibodies to capture specific molecules. These probes offer selectivity but have many limitations. For example, the reagents that are used are expensive, the probes have limited life spans and the systems require highly trained technicians to operate them. Above all, it is almost impossible to find probes to target each type of molecule researchers want to study.

Chae is solving the problem by utilizing nature's "smart system." His protein sensor does not use these probes, yet it has high selectivity. His probeless biosensor is packaged in a way that makes it resistant to environmental changes such as temperature, humidity and vibration, which degrade the sensor's performance.

Chae's Career award grant (about $400,000) also will fund education programs on his research designed for K-12 students and teachers, as well as for college students and groups underrepresented in science and engineering, including women.

Unlocking the Internet's deep well of data

Yi Chen wants to improve the accessibility of Internet data for search engine users. Internet users employ Google to access millions of HTML documents on the web. In addition to this easily searched information, Chen says, there is a "hidden web," that includes high-quality research, travel, commerce and manufacturing data stored in databases not easily accessed by search engines such as Google.

"All of this information is there and oftentimes it has much higher-quality information, but it is not readily available because it is not in HTML," Chen says. "My work will allow people to search these databases easily using simple keywords."

The NSF cites Chen's work as a potentially transformative advance because it would allow the user to cut across the boundaries between information that is stored in distinctly different modes, and it would overcome some of the problems associated with traditional databases and methods of information retrieval.

Databases typically store highly organized raw data optimized for efficient processing by the database designer. This optimization can make the data difficult for the untrained user to interpret until the user is taught to understand the database schemas and the optimizing decisions made by the database designer.

Chen seeks to solve this problem with her simple keyword search engine. Her work promises to be "tremendously useful to everyone because search engines could potentially no longer be restricted to a subset of information available in HTML," she says. The Career award will provide about $445,000 to support the research.

Harnessing carbon nanotubes

Hanqing Jiang's research promises to deepen fundamental understanding of how nano-scale structures can be made to function and improve the effectiveness of various mechanical systems on a macro scale. That knowledge will enable discoveries in nanoscience and nanoengineering to be more broadly applied in practical pursuits.

Jiang's work focuses on carbon nanotubes macroscopic assembly specifically carbon nanotube macro-films. His NSF Career award will provide about $400,000.

These macroscale structures with nanoscale details are proving highly effective in accomplishing myriad intricate technological tasks. Jiang wants to link the material properties and capabilities of carbon nanotubes to larger-scale materials and devices.

Doing that will allow engineers to harness the power of carbon nanotubes for use in conventional manufacturing operations. Learning how to better manipulate and assemble carbon nanotubes also will allow researchers to improve construction of the devices they use to achieve advances in nanotechnology. Such research could lead to the development of design guidelines for the assembly of larger-scale carbon nanotube-based networks. Those networks will expand the applications of nanotechnology in numerous areas, such as in solar cells and energy storage devices.

Jiang's work will be shared with the public, particularly young students, through outreach programs in partnership with the Arizona Science Center and the Phoenix Elementary School District.

Using computers to help the visually impaired

Baoxin Li is working in the areas of computer vision, multimedia processing and statistical methods in visual computing. His Career award provides more than $400,000 for research into technology to aid the visually impaired.

"We want to build a computer-based system to automatically create tactile graphics for people with visual disabilities," Li says. His idea is to use computer technology to allow a person with visual impairments to read text or view web site content in the privacy of their own homes and work spaces in the same way as people without sight impairments.

"We can develop a system so that people with visual impairments can have easy access from their laptops at home or in the lab, so they can do everything themselves," he says.

His research team is attempting to render representations of graphics usable by the visually impaired. One project is the development of software designed to "read" an image and render a tactile representation of that image.

Initially, Li is focusing on textbooks used by students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, commonly referred to as STEM courses. STEM materials are "heavy with diagrams and illustrations" presenting a challenge for sight-impaired students who must seek out services to assist them in comprehending the illustrations that are central to STEM studies."

The effort to aid STEM students will have a broad range of applications in the areas of computer vision and pattern-recognition. Li's group is collaborating with the Phoenix Foundation for the Blind, as well as ASU's Disability Resource Center and the Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing.

Stronger materials one nanowire at a time

Henry Sodano's work revolves around a discovery made in his laboratory that led to development of a process that uses nanostructures to increase the strength of fiber-reinforced composite materials.

Fiber reinforced composites provide higher strength per weight than other structural materials, such as metals. The improved strength-to-weight ratio typically is used in high-performance devices like military aircraft, high performance automobiles, golf clubs and tennis racquets.

Sodano's method uses nanowires to form an interface that bonds and blends fibers such as carbon, glass or polymers with other materials. The effect of the nanowires gives the composite materials more strength, including better tensile strength and the ability to bear more weight and stress.

"We are the first to show you can improve the structural performance of composite materials by using a nanowire interface," Sodano says.

A key improvement is that the process only requires low temperatures to produce the interface as opposed to traditional technologies that require high temperatures, which can damage the fibers and reduce the material's strength. Sodano's team wants to understand precisely what properties lead to the improved performance, which could lead to broader applications of materials developed through this process.

Sodano's Career award will provide more than $400,000 for the research. It will also support projects to bring the work to young students, and Sodano will establish an "engineering science night" for middle school students and their parents.

The binds that tie

Arjan van der Vaart's Career award is for $600,000 and will be used to study the binding mechanism of sequence specific DNA-binding proteins.

These proteins are crucial for gene regulation, transcription initiation and DNA replication. Their binding is characterized by large conformational changes, involving the (partial) folding or unfolding of the protein and the bending or kinking of DNA. Van der Vaart will develop and apply new computational techniques to understand the causes of these massive structural rearrangements to uncover the coupling between the motion of the protein and the DNA, and to establish the sequence of events in the coupled binding-bending-folding process.

"When these proteins bind to their target sites, they undergo massive changes in molecular shape," says van der Vaart. "They often fold and bend or kink the DNA. It is not understood how the folding, bending and binding are coupled, and it is not understood what interactions trigger this behavior. My research aims to address why these changes happen and determine the molecular cause of this very complex process."

Van der Vaart will focus on two representative systems -- the Ets-1 transcription factor (which is involved in embryonic development, angiogenesis and cancer), which partially unfolds upon binding and bends the DNA by 26 degrees; and the lac repressor headpiece (part of a much larger bacterial protein), which folds upon binding and bends the DNA by 36 degrees.

Computer simulations will give insight into how the molecular recognition processes are coupled to conformational dynamics. The knowledge gained is expected to lead to a better understanding how proteins and DNA interact. In the long term, these will ultimately help to understand how important cellular processes are initiated (in sick or healthy cells).

The program will include the mentoring of minority undergraduate summer students, the development of new high school teaching modules, and the introduction of visualization labs in the classroom.

The Career awards are an example of the economic benefit a research university can bring to its state. Each year, Arizona universities contribute nearly $1 billion into the Arizona economy from their research, most of which is funded by the U.S. government and entities from outside the state. Research money brought in by universities is restricted money that can be used only for the research activity it supports. It cannot be used to compensate for cuts in other parts of the university's budget.


Contact: Skip Derra
Arizona State University

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