Eight Syracuse University faculty members have received CAREER awards from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development program during the 2021-22 academic year. This is the largest number of the prestigious NSF awards earned in a single year.
The highly competitive NSF Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) program supports 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. Activities pursued by early-career faculty should build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research.
Three of the awardees are faculty at the College of Engineering and Computer Science: Assistant Professors Sara Eftekharnejad, Ferdinando Fioretto and Zhao Qin. Eftekharnejad and Fioretto are members of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, while Qin teaches in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.
Five other honorees are on the faculty of the College of Arts and Sciences: John Franck, assistant professor of chemistry; Brett Jakubiak, assistant professor of psychology; David Kellen, assistant professor of psychology; Davoud Mozhdehi, assistant professor of chemistry; and Minghao Rostami, assistant professor of mathematics.
“Syracuse University takes great pride in the National Science Foundation’s presentation of this high number of early-career awards,” says Gretchen Ritter, vice chancellor, provost and chief academic officer. “These prestigious grants recognize the value of current research and the long-term professional potential of our faculty. We regard them as innovative researchers and tremendous assets to their departments and schools and congratulate them. We look forward to watching their research careers continue to flourish as they educate the next generation of scientists and innovators.”
Engineering and Computer Science Faculty
Eftekharnejad’s project, “Modeling and Quantification of the Interdependent Power Grid Uncertainties,” examines how conditions impact the U.S. electric power grid and looks at developing better methods of predicting grid disruptions. She is using statistical modeling of power grid failures to help predict power outages within rapid timeframes. Another focus is modeling power-generation uncertainties from various types of energy supplies, including those that are weather dependent. She and her team are working on using system measurements of grid status and condition uncertainties to find a dynamic model that adjusts in real time to help predict power outages before they occur.
In his project, “End-to-End Constrained Optimization Learning,” Fioretto is researching new models for solving computer optimization problems by accelerating data-driven learning. In that effort, he and his research team are approximating near-real-time integration of constrained optimization principles into machine learning algorithms. Optimized algorithms can improve an array of computer-based processes used in industrial applications that affect everyday life, such as meeting electricity demands efficiently, matching organ donors with receivers, scheduling flights and finding a nearby driver at a ride-sharing service.
Qin’s project, “Multiscale Mechanics of Mycelium for Lightweight, Strong and Sustainable Composites” seeks to reveal the fundamental principles that govern the multiscale mechanics of mycelium-based composites and integrate research into an educational program. Mycelium, produced during mushroom growth as the main body of fungi, plays an essential role in altering soil chemistry and mechanics, enabling a suitable living environment for different plant species.
Arts and Sciences Faculty
For “Spin Dynamics Measurements of Site-to-Site Variations in Hydration Water at Soft Nanoscale Interfaces,” Franck is developing instrumentation and software to explore how properties of water at nanoscale levels control cell functions. He is making and isolating proteins and labeling them with molecular tags, then using quantum spin physics to develop and interpret their measurements. Mapping non-uniform behavior of water at the nanoscale level can improve understanding of how the tiniest machinery inside cells is structured and operates. That knowledge could lead to the design of better drugs and materials.
Jakubiak’s research, “Modeling the Unique Effects of Verbal and Physical Contact on Well-Being,” gauges how affectionate physical contact—apart from verbal expressions of affection—impacts individuals psychologically. The research examines the unique benefits of affectionate touch, why affectionate touch has such benefits and who benefits from engaging in affectionate touch and in what contexts. Jakubiak says the project’s goal is to advance knowing how people think about and navigate close relationships to protect and enhance personal and relationship well-being.
In his project, “Recognition Memory Modeling: Testing Foundations and Extending Boundaries,” Kellen is developing a body of experimental data and analysis methods to formulate a single validated account of recognition memory. The project will help refine current understanding of how people remember and develop measurement tools for practitioners and researchers to better assess memory across the lifespan. Comparisons could be used in clinical applications for populations such as people with Alzheimer’s disease.
For “Post-translationally Lipidated Biopolymers as Multiphasic All-Aqueous Emulsions,” Mozhdehi is researching the replication of water-based emulsions to reduce and perhaps eliminate the need for oil-based surfactants in the manufacture of many common products. He says aqueous emulsion technology could potentially replace traditional oil-based emulsions in food processing, cosmetics, biosensing and delivery of pharmaceuticals. The research involves trying to recreate the water-in-water emulsions human cells sometimes temporarily develop to prolong the time that two water-based layers can stay separated.
Rostami’s research, “Towards Harnessing the Motility of Microorganisms: Fast Algorithms, Data-Driven Models and 3D Interactive Visual Computing,” examines the “swimming” processes of micro-organisms (such as bacteria, sperm and algae) to harness their motility systems. Her specialty in computational fluid dynamics will help with the development of data-driven models and computationally efficient algorithms to simulate the movements of microswimmers. She plans to produce a 3D interactive visual computing system as a tool to study the hydrodynamics of swimming microorganisms.
Early Career Awards
For the College of Arts and Sciences, having five faculty named at one time marks a record number of such NSF awardees at the school, says Alan Middleton, College of Arts and Sciences associate dean of research and scholarship. “The honor affirms the outstanding potential for these newer faculty members to make novel contributions to both research and education. They are a testament to the college’s and University’s standing as a premier destination for research excellence,” he says.
Jae Oh, the David G. Edelstein Professor for Broadening Participation and chair of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), agrees. “Receiving an NSF CAREER award is an important accomplishment and recognition for new faculty. The EECS department has been regularly producing CAREER awardees in recent years, and we expect this trend to continue in many future years,” he says.