Editors: Story updated May 26, 2020.
LAWRENCE — Seven assistant professors at the University of Kansas have each received a prestigious grant designed to help early-career faculty members in STEM disciplines establish a lifetime of leadership in their respective fields.
The National Science Foundation CAREER awards went to five recipients in the School of Engineering and two in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences. The engineering recipients were Esam El-Araby, assistant professor of electrical engineering & computer science; Gibum Kwon, assistant professor of mechanical engineering; Xianglin Li, assistant professor of mechanical engineering; Huixuan Wu, assistant professor of aerospace engineering; and Cuncong Zhong, assistant professor of electrical engineering & computer science. The CLAS recipients were Chris Rogan, assistant professor of experimental physics, and Emily Witt, assistant professor of mathematics.
“This recognition forecasts great promise for these KU faculty who represent the future of their fields and are already making discoveries and innovations that will help us understand and change our world for the better,” said Simon Atkinson, vice chancellor for research. “They join 49 previous CAREER award winners across the Lawrence campus – a number that speaks to the sustained strength of KU’s research community.”
The five-year awards are designed to support “early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization,” according to NSF.
“From my time serving on NSF panels, I know that these CAREER grants are incredibly competitive and rare. The fact that NSF will be making these investments at KU speaks volumes about the quality of our junior faculty and their promise for making substantial impacts in their own disciplines and beyond,” said John Colombo, interim dean of the College. “I am pleased to congratulate all of our awardees, and I think we should all acknowledge the time and effort that they each had to devote in order to be afforded this exceptional opportunity. I wish them the best of luck with their projects.”
Dean of Engineering Arvin Agah said the awards serve as a source of pride for the university.
“This is a tremendous accomplishment for these faculty members and shows the potential for their research to benefit society,” Agah said. “It positions them as role models for other early-career faculty and sets them on a course to be leaders throughout their academic careers. This type of recognition elevates the stature of KU Engineering and is a great example of the world-class research and teaching conducted at the University of Kansas.”
The NSF first issued CAREER awards in 1995. Since then, KU’s Lawrence faculty has included 56 recipients: 21 in the School of Engineering, two in the School of Pharmacy and 33 in schools and departments across the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences.
A look at the seven 2020 recipients and their research:
El-Araby joined the KU Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science in 2015. He was awarded $550,351 from the NSF for his work in trying to make supercomputers more accessible to the scientists, engineers, mathematicians and other researchers who need to harness their data-processing power.
His work involves “very large machines” that possess “extreme heterogeneity.” They feature multiple different types of processors — CPUs, FPGAs, GPUs and more — cooperating to tackle complex problems. Such machines are used in quantum simulations, high-energy physics, oil tracking, weather forecasts and even disease modeling.
“Collaboratively they can do a better job than a system just made up of CPUs, just made up of FPGAs, just made up of GPUs, made up of just one type of computing technology,” El-Araby said.
Programming these machines is also a complex job, however. El-Araby’s aim is to make it easier for users to ignore those “under the hood” complexities so they can simply and quickly write applications that help them pursue their research and solve problems.
“We’re trying to hide these details from the nonspecialists,” he said. Otherwise, “this is a huge challenge that could limit our national ability and international competitiveness to build and efficiently use these large and heterogeneous machines.”
Kwon, who joined the Department of Mechanical Engineering in 2016, was awarded $549,996 by NSF. His research involves investigating and establishing new technology to enable the separation of miscible liquid mixtures by selective sorption. Separation of miscible liquids is a critical step for a wide range of practical processes that include wastewater remediation, biofuel production, water purification and removal of contaminants from groundwater.
Current methods of liquid separation, such as distillation and pervaporation, are often limited by consuming great amounts of energy, Kwon said. The technology he seeks “is like a sponge — if you can imagine a sponge that absorbs lots of water but at the same time repels other liquids, like oil.”
“Such absorbents will surpass the technologies currently utilized in a variety of applications including environmental, biomedical and pharmaceutical engineering,” Kwon said in his submission to the NSF. “Thus, the outcomes of this research also have the potential to advance national health and prosperity.”
The grant will fund more than research: Kwon also plans to develop a STEM course module for students with special needs in collaboration with KU’s Department of Special Education.
Li joined the mechanical engineering department in 2014. He received an award of $500,000 for research into new battery storage technologies. "Everybody is looking for better batteries,” he said. “We're tired of charging the cellphone every day. If we can develop batteries with higher capacity, maybe we can charge it once a week.”
The current generation of cutting-edge lithium-ion batteries “is reaching its theoretical energy density limit,” Li wrote in his submission to the NSF, but “other technologies such as lithium-air battery, fuel cells and supercapacitors have great potential as the next-generation energy storage and energy conversion technologies.” The problem with current lithium-air batteries, he said, is that they can store a lot of power but they can’t transmit it at very high rates — his research will use advanced imaging and computational techniques to investigate how to improve that performance.
The results should be environmentally friendly, Li said, among other benefits. “a smaller battery is typically cheaper,” he said. “If the battery that can drive the car for 300 miles is reduced to one-tenth the size, it will be much cheaper.”
Wu, who came to KU in 2015, was awarded $500,000 to peek into the often opaque heart of “complex particulate flows” to understand the internal mechanics of fluid matter in motion.
Observers can see what’s happening on the surface of a muddy, dirty river, Wu said, but there are many important things happening beneath the surface and unavailable to the naked eye. “If you want to imagine the motion of a muddy, dirty river, you have to see through it,” he said. Wu plans to develop a magnetic-based measure of liquid motion so scientists don’t have to rely on visuals to understand how they work.
“From a scientific point of view, there are a lot of motions in the universe that people have been able to study only because they see them,” Wu said. His research, he said, could lead to technologies that help scientists better predict everything from landslides to the flow of oceans.
“This can tell you how a landslide occurs — if you understand that, you can prevent disasters,” he said. “One day, when we collect a sufficient amount of data, we should be able to develop a better predicting system.”
Cuncong Zhong, assistant professor of electrical engineering & computer science, came to KU in 2016. The NSF awarded him $722,398 for his efforts to develop new techniques to research and analyze microbes.
“We're interested in studying microbes. They form communities — they form like a social network — they do not exist alone,” Zhong said. “We study them together as a community by studying the sequences of their DNA. Nowadays we don't have very good technology to separate the microbes and study their individual DNAs. We study a mixture of DNAs. That causes a lot of challenges for the analysis.”
He added: “So what we're trying to do is facilitate this process. It's computationally intensive. We're trying to build new algorithms, new methods, to speed up the analysis and make it more accurate.”
That work, Zhong said, should have a wide range of applications — facilitating everything from the diagnosis of bacterial diseases to environmental monitoring of the ocean, soil and biomass.
Zhong had previously applied for an NSF grant and missed out. He said he was aided in this year’s successful effort by a university-sponsored writing workshop. “I got a lot of support,” he said.
Rogan, who started at KU in 2017, was awarded $949,976 for his research using the famed Large Hadron Collider in Geneva.
“In particular, I'm interested in looking for evidence of dark matter being created in our detector,” he said. “We basically smash protons together at the Large Hadron Collider at very high energies. The reason why we're doing this is when you collide these protons together, the energy densities are far in excess of what we're used to in regular experiences on Earth. They're more akin to what happened in moments right after the Big Bang. The higher energy we can probe, the smaller the distances we’re able to resolve, essentially searching through subatomic phenomena to learn more about the first moments of the universe.”
Rogan said scientists believe there is a connection between regular matter and dark matter. The eventual goal of his research is to understand that connection — and perhaps even produce dark matter at some point. “The appeal of this is understanding how, effectively, 80 percent of the detectable universe works,” he said.
Rogan’s research features an unusual flourish: He is getting KU undergraduates involved with a “Fantasy Physics” outreach project, where students can compete with teams made up of selected particle physics experiments in an online fantasy-sports-inspired format.
Witt, who arrived at KU in 2015, received a grant of $400,000 for her efforts to advance the study of commutative algebra — an area of math that underpins both cryptography and the study of genomics.
“Though the problems I work on are more specialized, they are motivated by the study of polynomial equations and the geometric objects they define,” she said. Those objects “often live in high dimension, so we cannot visualize them in 3D. One goal of my research is to measure how complicated a geometric object is and to understand how its components fit together.”
Witt said her research uses techniques from several areas of mathematics — for instance, to further her investigations, she’s applying differential equations to the field of algebra. "One of the compelling parts of the project is that it uses methods from different areas of mathematics,” she said. “It’s exciting to do that.”
The NSF has existed since 1950 to promote discovery in the sciences and to fund those on the frontier of scientific innovation. The CAREER awards are intended to aid recipients as they build a foundation for a lifetime of leadership in both research and education. The KU Office of Research, in partnership with the Bremner Editing Center in the KU School of Journalism, offers a CAREER Writing Workshop each year to help faculty prepare proposals for the award and increase their chances of success.