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UVA Leads the State in Research Awards for Early-Career Faculty – UVA Today

A record-breaking number of University of Virginia faculty members – 13 assistant and associate professors – have won National Science Foundation awards, bringing to the University more than $8 million in research funding.
The recognition comes through the NSF’s Early Career Development Award, or CAREER Award. It is available to faculty who, while still relatively new in their fields, are involved in exciting and transformative research. The award is one of the most competitive and prestigious available to university faculty in the early stages of their careers. No other Virginia university eclipsed UVA for the number of faculty members honored this year.
“For UVA to receive a record-breaking 13 NSF CAREER awards for our early-career researchers really speaks to the talent we have across Grounds,” said Melur “Ram” Ramasubramanian, UVA’s vice president for research “We are excited to see them fulfill their potential and find out where their discoveries take them.”
UVA Today has already introduced you to some of them, including Homa Alemzadeh of the School of Engineering and Applied Science for her work to make robot-assisted surgeries safer and more available, particularly to underserved rural areas; Adrienne Wood, of the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, for her research on the quality of friendships and how that relates to loneliness; and Rachel Letteri, also of the Engineering School, who studies how polymers might be able repair tissue loss from injury or disease.
Here are the others who earned the awards:
(College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, Department of Biology)
Bergland studies how environmental factors like climate and the availability of resources affect evolution. It’s a relationship that is not fully understood.
Alan Bergland studies how climate change and the availability of resources affect evolution. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)
Bergland’s work focuses on fruit fly populations. Since a fruit fly’s life expectancy is barely two weeks, Bergland can see in a relatively short period of time how generations of fruit flies adapt as he alters their environment.
“These populations adaptively evolve, meaning that the genetic composition of the population changes because some individuals are genetically better at surviving in a particular environment than others,” Bergland said.
(School of Engineering and Applied Science, Department of Computer Science)
Billions of internet-connected products and sensors make up what engineers call the “Internet of Things.”
Bradford Campbell is working on how to extend the usefulness of internet-connected devices in hard-to-reach places when software needs updating and power supplies evolve. (Photo by Tom Cogill)
These items improve the efficiency of cars, homes and even health care, but this vast network has a drawback: Keeping these devices functioning and helpful is a daunting task when software needs updating and power sources evolve, especially for devices in hard-to-reach places.
Campbell is working on solutions.
“What we need is something that can let us use already deployed devices and keep them useful decades into the future,” Campbell said. “But it’s challenging because the arc of technology doesn’t go backward. We don’t tend to want things with fewer features, or that are less secure or that provide less utility. We always want more, more, more.”
(School of Engineering and Applied Science, Departments of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Computer Science)
There’s far more data generated, captured and copied each year – an incomprehensible 64 trillion gigabytes in 2020 – than can ever be stored.
Farzad Farnoud Hassanzadeh is working on algorithms that could more efficiently store the massive amounts of computer data generated each year. (Contributed photo)
Farnoud is developing new models and data compression algorithms that will make the storage and analysis of large data more efficient and accurate.
With more data, and the ability to analyze it, scientists could better understand things like the number of mutations needed to spark a change in evolution, or how diseases develop.
“Those types of studies would benefit from having these more accurate models and hypothesis testing and prediction tools,” Farnoud said.
(College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, Department of Mathematics)
Hayes imagines a time where an advanced supercomputer could zip through a complicated calculation that would take today’s computers hundreds of years to solve.
Ben Hayes is working to bring quantum computing into reality, where supercomputers could quickly solve problems that would take today’s computers hundreds of years. (Photo by Molly Angevine)
Hayes’ focus on an aspect of mathematics known as operator algebras could help bring physicists and engineers at least a few steps closer to making quantum computing a reality.
Hayes said he will use some of the grant money to make studying math at UVA more accessible to underrepresented groups and to help close the learning gaps between students entering the University from different backgrounds.
“There’s a tremendous social aspect to mathematics,” Hayes said. “I don’t think that’s something a lot of people realize, so I think it’s very important to get students feeling like they belong in the department as early as possible.”
(School of Education and Human Development, Educational Psychology and Applied Developmental Science Program)
Jirout, a “curiosity researcher,” wants to find the formula that makes kids curious during science learning.
Jamie Jirout wants to understand what kinds of lesson plans for schoolchildren spark sustained curiosity when they study about science. (Contributed photo)
The key ingredient appears to be the right dose of uncertainty. Too much uncertainty in a class can overwhelm kids; too little makes tasks simple, even boring.
“We want to understand how instructional practices promote curiosity, and what kinds of questions and instructions foster not just momentary curiosity, but curiosity as a sustained characteristic,” she said.
With increased knowledge of what promotes curiosity and how curiosity promotes science learning, Jirout and her team will also use the funding to engage undergraduate students, K-12 educators and even children’s museum instructors on best practices for inspiring curiosity.
(School of Engineering and Applied Science, Department of Computer Science)
Kwon is developing plans to stop computer hackers at the very first keystroke, long before they can shut down fuel pipelines or disrupt commerce.
Yonghwi Kwon wants to figure out how to stop computer hackers at the very first keystrokes. (Contributed photo)
That involves combing through datasets of code to find the paths hackers follow into a system. The result will be new ways to spot a cyberattack at the very earliest moment and shut it down before a hacker wreaks havoc.
“We want to uncover details about the ways attacks happen and create defenses able to anticipate an attack,” Kwon said.
(Engineering/Departments of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Computer Science; School of Data Science)
Jundong Li seeks to develop computer algorithms that, with human input, figure out the best ways to teach struggling students. (Contributed photo)
How could teachers better help students who struggle? There’s no shortage of opinions about effective ways to teach children, based on observations of what happens in classrooms and children’s behavior in and out of school.
Li is developing sophisticated algorithms and mathematical models that, paired with human observations, will help teachers and administrators determine which learning methods are best for the youngest pupils. His work has the potential for broad applications in public health and medicine in addition to education.
“The basic problem here is that machine learning and data mining alone are often insufficient to make decisions for humans,” Li said. “Typically, given a large amount of data, machine learning models can find correlations and then use those correlations to make inferences and predict outcomes.”
(School of Engineering and Applied Science, Department of Chemical Engineering)
Catalysts – materials that accelerate chemical reactions – are tricky things, but without them, our world would be a lot dirtier.
Chris Paolucci is studying how catalysts do their important jobs, down to the atomic level. (Contributed photo)
They can be used to save energy, reduce waste and control pollution.
“A primary bottleneck in many applications has been stability of the catalyst,” Paolucci said. “Let’s say I synthesize something perfectly. I make the material the exact way I want it, but when I start running my chemical reaction that I’m interested in, everything changes. I end up getting something I didn’t start with, and I don’t really understand why that is.”
Paolucci aims to figure out what happens to catalytic materials during reaction, down to their nanoparticles, atoms and ions. This understanding is the key to designing longer-lasting, efficient catalysts that work in a variety of conditions.
(School of Engineering and Applied Science, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering)
There once was a time when mobile phones couldn’t do much more than dial, mute and hold.
Cong Shen is designing the next leap in wireless communication that will allow mobile phones to use machine learning and artificial intelligence. (Contributed photo)
Thankfully, communications technologies transform about every 10 years. Each generation has a feature that proves disruptive in a good way – what engineers call a “killer application” that makes the new technology so attractive it replaces the old.
Shen is designing 6G wireless communications that will allow machine learning and artificial-intelligence technologies to revolutionize mobile phones. A 6G system could give phones almost unimaginable abilities to learn and deliver information and services to consumers through voice, video and touch commands.
“My CAREER proposal is about building a foundation, an overall framework, for a dramatically different communications system,” Shen said.
(College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, Department of Chemistry)
Zhang, an associate chemistry professor, is working on how to convert carbon dioxide in biogas – or gas produced from animal waste – to methane.
Sen Zhang is researching methods to more efficiently use gas from animal waste to create renewable fuel. (Contributed photo).
The hoped-for result would be pipeline-quality renewable natural gas that could accelerate the United States’ efforts of pursuing a net-zero emissions economy.
“If this succeeds, this innovation will lead to improvements in energy efficiency, operational cost and carbon management in the use of catalyst materials for biogas-to-renewable natural gas conversion processes,” said Zhang.
Zhang also plans to develop a series of education plans and outreach, with an emphasis on the development of a teaching platform for undergraduate clean-energy education. The project also will involve educational outreach to minority-serving institutions to increase minority participation in the energy sector.
McGregor McCance
Associate Vice President for Communications and Executive Editor, UVA Today Office of University Communications
October 22, 2022


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