July 09, 2018
Chiara Vercesi

For young tenure-track academics, establishing an original and sustainable research program is a priority. And particularly in the STEM fields—where robust research programs can require materials, supplies, expensive equipment,  and support for graduate students—winning external funding can be essential for career advancement.

Recognizing this challenge and wanting to help promising early-stage faculty members build a firm base for later achievements, a number of federal agencies and private foundations offer special early career awards—often multiyear grants that are designed to help rising faculty stars establish a trajectory for their careers as educators and researchers. The Department of Defense’s Young Investigator Awards, the Department of Energy’s Early Career Research Program awards, and NASA’s Early Career Fellowship programs are prime examples.

One of the best-known and most coveted young faculty honors is the five-year CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF). (CAREER is not an acronym, but is instead shorthand for the NSF’s Faculty Early Career Development Program). Highly competitive (between 8 and 24 percent of proposals were funded in 2017, depending on the discipline), the CAREER Award recognizes men and women “who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the missions of their organizations,” according to an NSF webinar.

While the primary focus of a CAREER Award is research, recipients must demonstrate how they will integrate their scholarship with their teaching and public outreach. With the goal of helping develop outstanding scholar-educators, the NSF advises prospective applicants that it seeks to promote the kind of cross-fertilization “in which the process of discovery stimulates learning and assures that research findings are quickly and effectively communicated in a broader context and to a larger audience.”

WPI faculty members have received a steady stream of CAREER Awards since the mid-1990s, when the CAREER program was launched, typically at a pace of one or two awards per year (in recent years, a number of new faculty recruits have arrived with the prestigious awards already in hand, bringing the total of current faculty members who have earned the honor to 31). The past three years have brought a particularly impressive bounty, with eight new awards bestowed on WPI researchers. During the same timeframe, the university received its first U.S. Air Force Young Investigator Award.

WPI’s unusually strong recent showing in early career honors can be attributed, in part, to the university’s success over the past decade in recruiting exceptionally talented young faculty members, many of whom completed advanced degrees at the nation’s top research universities and most of whom had already built well-established and funded research programs, notes Bogdan Vernescu, vice provost for research.

“While focused on the promise of discoveries and innovations yet to come,” Vernescu says, “these very competitive awards also recognize talented researchers with demonstrated track records as researchers and educators. WPI’s recent success in winning these awards reinforces the judgment of the Wall Street Journal, which in 2016 ranked WPI No. 1 in the nation among universities with more than 1,000 students that do the best job of combining scholarly research with classroom instruction.

“These talented women and men have the experience, skills, and innovative spirit necessary to develop practical solutions to significant scientific, technological, and societal problems. I look forward to seeing what they do next.”

Here’s a brief look at WPI’s nine recent early career award recipients and the work they’re doing with their career-establishing grants.


Exposing Fakers

Kyumin Lee, Computer Science

$441,000 CAREER Award

A famous New Yorker cartoon shows two dogs at a computer. One says to the other, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” In fact, determining who is behind the information we encounter online and deciding whether we should trust it is becoming more difficult all the time. With his award, Lee is attacking one of the practices behind the spread of malicious online content, including phony online news stories, fake likes on social media posts, and misleading reviews on online shopping sites. It’s called “crowdturfing,” and it involves recruiting confederates on crowdsourcing sites, where anyone can hire workers to complete small tasks for pay, to carry out the dirty work of planting fake information. Lee is developing algorithms that will cast light on these secretive activities, identifying the organizations that post the tasks, the websites the confederates are told to target, and even the hired hands, themselves. The hope is that by exposing the crowdturfers, he can help make the Internet a more trustworthy place.


Bacterial Defenses

Scarlet Shell, PhDBiology and Biotechnology

$1.1 million CAREER Award

To treat many infectious diseases, doctors must do battle with a wily adversary. Over millennia, bacteria have gained the ability to endure all sorts of threats, including extreme cold and heat and the lack of food, water, and oxygen. Unfortunately, for afflicted patients, they have also acquired strategies for thwarting attacks from the immune system and the onslaught of antibiotic drugs. Shell, who gained first-hand exposure to the human cost of ailments like malaria and tuberculosis when she spent time as a graduate student in clinics in Peru, is using her award to probe the molecular changes that bacteria undergo when under stress. One of the most common survival strategies is to simply stop growing, a behavior that seems connected to modified instructions sent by the bacteria’s genes in the form of messenger RNA. A better understanding of these and other genetic changes that bacteria undergo could lead to advanced treatments for diseases that take millions of lives each year.


Greener Fuels

Michael Timko, PhD, Chemical Engineering

$536,000 CAREER Award

Decades of burning fuels refined from crude oil have taken a toll on our environment and accelerated climate change. While it is unlikely that the demand for liquid transportation and heating fuels will go away anytime soon, Timko thinks there is a greener way to produce them. Locked into the biomolecules that make up the inedible portion of plants—known as lignocellulosic biomass after its two primary components, lignin and cellulose—are the ingredients for a new generation of biofuels, he believes. While methods exist for transforming that tough material into sugars that can then be refined into fuels, they are complex and costly, and require the use of highly toxic liquid acids. With this award, Timko is working to demonstrate that the breakdown of lignocellulosic biomass can be simplified by substituting sold acids, catalysts that have long been used in chemical production and petroleum refining. Using solid acids to catalyze reactions in solid materials presents significant challenges, but if they can be overcome, Timko says, it may be possible to produce biofuels that are competitive with, if not less expensive than, fossil fuels.


Remarkable Materials

Lyubov Titova, PhD, Physics

$530,000 CAREER Award

Since graphene, which consists of a single layer of carbon atoms, was first isolated in 2004, a number of other so-called two-dimensional materials have come to light. Many have intriguing optoelectronic properties that suggest potential applications in such areas as photovoltaics and chemical sensors. With her award, Titova will examine a new class of environmentally stable two-dimensional materials made from the Earth-abundant elements germanium, selenium, sulfur, and tin. These compounds are believed to have extraordinary properties, including high electric conductivity and robust room-temperature ferroelectricity (a spontaneous electric polarization that can be reversed by the application of an external electric field), which would make them prime candidates for new types of solar cells. Titova and her team will study the relationship between the structure of these unusual substances and their response to light using ultra-fast spectroscopic techniques that can capture events in the sub-picosecond and nanosecond timeframes. The research may help uncover new properties that could lead to a host of new applications.


Domestic Security

Craig Shue, PhD, Computer Science

$508,000 CAREER Award

Through our two-way portals to the Internet, we bring a flood of news, entertainment, and information into our homes. If not properly guarded, those same doorways can let in unsavory characters, like hackers looking to steal our private information or turn our computers into “bots” with which to launch online attacks. Few homeowners have the knowledge needed to mount a robust defense, which is why the nation’s 54 million residential computer networks are among the Net’s weakest links. Shue wants to fix that. With his award, he is developing a groundbreaking approach to security that will use cloud-based providers and deployable security solutions to take the task of defending home networks out of our hands and outsource it to experts. The system will install updates to make our Internet routers smarter, and then compare the sites we try to reach—or those that try to connect to us—to a constantly updated list of bad actors. Like an algorithmic bouncer, it will let our friends in and keep our enemies at bay.


Playful Learning

Ivon Arroyo, PhD, Social Science and Policy Studies

$587,000 CAREER Award

In most elementary school classrooms, there is a time for play and a time for learning. But research by Arroyo, a computer scientist whose work embraces cognitive and educational psychology, shows that games can be a powerful tool for enhancing learning in mathematics. Arroyo has demonstrated that embodied games, which require students to move and gesture as they solve puzzles or tackle team-based math puzzles, can help students absorb and retain concepts better than more traditional classroom lessons. Engaging the muscles and the senses adds a new dimension to learning and appears to be particularly effective in keeping girls and underrepresented minorities, the students most likely to get turned off by math early on, from disengaging. In this project, students will play embodied games in groups while a software “engine” monitors their progress and their affect, offering instructions, feedback, hints, and encouragement through wearable electronic devices. The system will also track each student’s progress to help teachers visualize students’ performance, have open discussions, and personalize instruction.


Origami Robots

Cagdas Onal, PhD, Mechanical Engineering

$500,000 CAREER Award

When most people picture robots, they see machines with rigid parts. The robots Onal develops are soft, which makes them safer to operate around people and capable of performing tasks that rigid robots can’t, like snaking through rubble to search for survivors. But the unique properties of soft robots—their ability to bend in many axes and change their shape—make them unable to carry heavy loads. With his award, Onal will build a new class of soft robots that marry the advantages of soft and rigid structures. To do so, he will draw on the techniques of origami, or paper folding. The robots will be built from modules made of thin sheets of plastic with carefully designed fold lines. The sheets’ rigidity will give the modules the ability to carry loads, while the folds will let them bend and be compressed. Onal envisions robots made up of multiple modules working alongside people in fields as diverse as medicine, manufacturing, and home healthcare.


Modeling Marathoners

Sarah Olson, PhD, Mathematical Sciences

$400,000 CAREER Award

It’s a race that dwarfs the largest marathons. To reach and fertilize a human egg, a spermatozoon must outrace about 200 million competitors and successfully navigate a course that spans about 1,000 times its own length. With her award, Olson is developing computational techniques that can provide greater insight into the challenges that sperm encounter on this journey. For example, many sperm seem to bind to the oviductal wall, which can slow them down, but the conditions that favor binding or that free sperm at the right time so they can continue on their way are not well understood. Important factors seem to include the cells’ response to fluid flow in the reproductive tract and chemical and hormonal cues, so the mathematical models Olson is developing must combine physical and chemical inputs, which is challenging. The tools she’s building will not only help illuminate the normal reproductive process, but provide clues about possible new treatments for infertility.


Networked Autonom

Raghvendra Cowlagi, PhDAerospace Engineering

$360,000 Air Force Young Investigator Award

In 2016 Cowlagi became the first WPI faculty member to receive a Young Investigator Award from the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research. With the award, he is developing methods that will allow teams of unmanned aerial and terrestrial vehicles (UXVs) to cooperate as they respond to emergencies, including natural disasters. Cowlagi says UXVs are expected to play critical roles in emergency response in the future, performing two key jobs: mapping the extent of damage with aerial surveys and delivering food, water, medical supplies, and other items needed by victims. The tasks are interrelated, as maps can help delivery vehicles avoid flooding or other impassable hazards, so the algorithms that Cowlagi and his team will develop will integrate these functions through what is known as interactive planning and sensing.

The research will address some of the fundamental challenges of getting vehicles to work together in uncertain or unknown environments so they can make the best decisions and reach the best outcomes with limited resources.