Eight Indiana University researchers earn over $6 million in NSF awards for early-career scientists

  • March 31, 2016


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- In a recognition regarded as one of the most prestigious given in support of junior faculty, the National Science Foundation has awarded eight researchers at Indiana University a total of $6.27 million to advance research with applications to areas such as affordable drug development, global climate change, and resilience to terrorist attacks and natural disasters.

The NSF Faculty Early Career Development Awards, known as the NSF CAREER Awards, recognize faculty who "exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education, and the integration of education and research." As an award that supports both research and education, each grant supports cutting-edge research as well as educational activities that benefit students from grade school to the Ph.D. level. All grants are for five years.

"This award is a great recognition of the scholarship and commitment to education of IU's young faculty -- as well as the breadth and depth of the university's research enterprise -- with eight faculty honored who span six departments in three schools across two campuses," said IU Vice President for Research Fred H. Cate. "Moreover, each project reflects our faculty's deep commitment to the education of the next generation of scientists, with many grant recipients engaging in innovative educational programs designed to reach Indiana's young people where they learn through partnership with local schools, museums, and other state and regional organizations."

The winners and their research projects are:

M. Kevin Brown, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry, IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences

M. Kevin Brown, whose funding begins April 1, will receive about $675,000 to conduct research on catalyzing the construction of carbon-carbon bonds, which could advance the ability to synthesize drug molecules with inexpensive non-precious metal catalysts such as copper, lowering the cost of certain drugs. Currently, many drugs on market require expensive precious metals for the preparation of molecules used to treat certain conditions, such as cancer or depression.

The use of non-precious metals in drug-making also promotes sustainability in the pharmaceutical industry because they are less environmentally harmful than precious-metal catalysts.

The grant will also provide additional support for an exhibit created by Brown at WonderLab, a children's science museum in Bloomington, Ind., that teaches chemistry through activities such as a matching game based on scent.

Lisa M. Jones, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, School of Science at IUPUI

Lisa M. Jones will receive $1.1 million to develop new techniques for taking "snapshots" of proteins inside living cells. The work will deliver a clearer picture of what these molecules look like as they fold in their native environment.

The results could yield insights into protein misfolding, which has been linked to human diseases such as cystic fibrosis. To develop the new technique, Jones will employ mass spectrometry during the in-cell fast photochemical oxidation of proteins. The method represents an improvement over current methods for studying proteins, which require the use of membrane-mimicking systems that add a layer of complexity to the interpretation of data.

The grant will also provide one to two undergraduate students each year the opportunity to gain hands-on experience as an assistant in Jones' lab. The students will be recruited through the IUPUI Summer Scholars Institute, which accepts participants from IUPUI, IU Bloomington, and 12 historically black colleges and universities. The grant will begin in June.

Kimberly A. Novick, assistant professor in the IU Bloomington School of Public and Environmental Affairs

Kimberly A. Novick, whose grant started March 1, will receive about $750,000 to study how the return of forests in the Eastern United States may cool the Earth's surface, counteracting warming driven by climate change. The evaporation and winds caused by forests move heat away from the surface of the Earth in the same way that sweat or a fan cools the human body.

To conduct the study, Novick will observe evaporation and surface temperature across a wide range of grasslands and forests in eastern North America and compare the data against overall global trends. Temperatures in the region under observation are unique because they have lowered or remained unchanged over the past 100 years. Novick's project will test the hypothesis that the absence of warming is caused by a century of reforestation driven by people abandoning poor farmland in the region.

The award also will support a new workshop series and IU's participation in Project Budburst, a citizen science program that teaches young people to contribute to data-driven climate research through observing their environment.

Steve Pressé, assistant professor in the Department of Physics, School of Science at IUPUI

Steve Pressé, whose grant began March 1, will receive $1 million to develop new data-driven approaches to understand dynamical events -- such as molecular diffusion, crowding and reactions -- in living cells at the single-molecule level. While data collected inside living cells is messy, it is also very rich in information. The new methods developed by Pressé will harness this data to draw direct insight into signal processing and cellular communication as they happen.

The grant will also support a summer camp program at the Indianapolis Zoo called "The Bacterial Serengeti," to teach children ages 8 to 12 about predator-and-prey relationships in bacterial communities.

In addition to his primary appointment in physics, Pressé holds associate appointments in the IU School of Medicine and in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at IUPUI.

Filippo Radicchi, assistant professor in the IU School of Informatics and Computing

Filippo Radicchi, whose grant began Jan. 1, will receive $500,000 to develop new analytical and computational methods for understanding and preventing infrastructure collapses that follow extreme events, such as terrorist attacks and natural disasters.

The work confronts the fact that the physical networks that serve as the backbone for the flow of information, people and goods -- transportation, water, power, food and communications -- as well as intangible financial and trade networks are not only highly effective due to their interdependency but also more vulnerable to disruption. The project will develop tools and methods to understand these dynamics, which could help prevent future small-scale failures or targeted attacks from snowballing into "cascading failures" with catastrophic consequences.

The funds will also support efforts to develop integrated research and education courses on these topics at the graduate and undergraduate levels in IU's new intelligent systems engineering program.

Megan Thielges, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry, IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences

Megan Thielges will receive over $966,000 to advance research on the chemical mechanisms that orchestrate protein interactions in cells, focusing on the ways proteins recognize other proteins to which they need to bind.

Although such interactions are crucial to cellular function, they remain notoriously difficult to study since every protein in a cell is a large, complex molecule whose individual interactions take place within a complex and crowded environment. The work will be aided by state-of-the-art methods that allow the placement of "reporter chemicals" at specific locations on proteins, which provides the ability to test how motion at different parts of the molecule affects reaction with binding partners.

Thielges will also use support from the grant to advance several efforts on engaging women in science in collaboration with the IU Women in Science, Technology, Informatics and Mathematics Living-Learning Center, where she is a faculty fellow, and the Girl Scouts of Central Indiana. Her grant will begin July 1.

Lixin Wang, assistant professor in the Department of Earth Sciences, School of Science at IUPUI

Lixin Wang will receive about $780,000 to identify the amount and source of non-rainfall water -- such as fog and dew -- in the planet's drylands and assess how much these waters contribute to ecosystem functions.

The resulting data will improve scientists' ability to predict how future climate change will affect these dryland environments, which are home to more than 2.5 billion people and represent the largest biome on Earth. Information collection for the project will take place through a combination of field observation, process-based computational modeling and chemical analyses. The research will be conducted at the Gobabeb Research and Training Center in Namibia.

Data from the project will also be used to inform a summer training program for local high school teachers and to create a curriculum for undergraduate students and learning materials for students in grades 3 through 9. Several undergraduate and graduate students will also have the opportunity to participate in field research at the observation station in southwestern Africa. Wang's grant begins in June.

Yan Yu, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry, IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences

Yan Yu, whose grant began Feb. 15, will receive $500,000 to advance research on Janus particles, named for the Roman god with two faces, whose surface possesses two distinct parts with different surface chemistry.

Specifically, the project will investigate Janus particles' ability to enter cells, which could affect their potential as a carrier for multifunctional, programmable drugs. These drugs deliver treatment for multiple symptoms in one package; for example, a single pill that targets cognitive impairment, motor dysfunction and depression in patients with Alzheimer's disease. The particles are a strong candidate to deliver this form of treatment due to their "two-faced" nature, but little is currently known about whether this unique property may also affect their ability to enter cells or to deliver drugs after they permeate the cellular barrier.

The grant will also support a "biomaterials ambassadors" outreach program, established two years ago, in which IU undergraduate students working in Yu's laboratory visit local middle and high schools each year to deliver a short lesson on biomaterials. The program is designed to increase exposure to the topic among students in rural Indiana.

M. Kevin Brown

M. Kevin Brown | Photo by Indiana University

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Lisa M. Jones

Lisa M. Jones | Photo by Indiana University

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Kimberly A. Novick

Kimberly A. Novick | Photo by Indiana University

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Steve Presse

Steve Presse | Photo by Indiana University

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Filippo Radicchi

Filippo Radicchi | Photo by Indiana University

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Megan Thielges

Megan Thielges | Photo by Indiana University

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Lixin Wang

Lixin Wang | Photo by Indiana University

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Yan Yu

Yan Yu | Photo by Indiana University

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