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Eight Receive Young Faculty Award

National Science Foundation Early Career Development awards recognize likely leaders of the 21st century

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August 11, 2009 | by Megan Fellman
EVANSTON, Ill. --- Eight young Northwestern University faculty members -- Robert Findler, Matthew Goldrick, Mitra Hartmann, Malcolm MacIver, Brian Odom, Monica Prasad, Regan Thomson and Celeste Watkins-Hayes -- have received the Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation.

The minimum CAREER award size is $400,000 for a five-year period.

Award recipients from the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science are Findler, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Hartmann and MacIver, assistant professors of mechanical engineering and of biomedical engineering.
Recipients from the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences are Goldrick, assistant professor of linguistics; Odom, assistant professor of physics and astronomy; Prasad, assistant professor of sociology; Thomson, assistant professor of chemistry; and Watkins-Hayes, assistant professor of sociology and African American studies and faculty fellow in Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research (IPR).

The CAREER program offers the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious awards for new faculty members. The program recognizes and supports early career development of those teacher-scholars who are most likely to become the academic leaders of the 21st century. CAREER awardees are selected on the basis of creative, career-development plans that effectively integrate research and education within the context of the mission of their respective institutions.

Findler’s research focuses on software engineering and programming languages. He studies the design of programming languages to enable better software design.

His CAREER award is for his proposal “Lightweight, Blame-aware Contract Checking.” Software contract checking is a technique for improving the reliability of software by peppering small, checkable facts into the program. When the facts turn out to be false, the contract checker can not only report an error in the software, it also can localize it to just a small part of the program, making it easy for software developers to track down the source of the error.

Goldrick studies the cognitive and neural mechanisms underlying humans’ ability to produce and perceive speech. He focuses on phonology, the knowledge of sound patterns. Goldrick’s research draws on data including speech errors made by undergraduates saying tongue twisters; the language impairments of individuals with neurological damage; and acoustic analyses examining the influence of multiple languages on properties of bilingual speech sounds. He uses the data to build computational and mathematical models of the mind and brain.

Goldrick’s CAREER award is for his proposal “Integrating Grammatical and Psycholinguistic Approaches to Phonological Processes in Speech Production.” Research in linguistic theory has constructed rich mathematical theories to precisely characterize the systematic patterns of sounds observed in human languages. Such theories, however, have largely ignored how humans process sounds in real time, the focus of research in psycholinguistics. Detailed experimentation in this area has led to sophisticated but largely qualitative theories of human sound processing. Goldrick aims to unify these two distinct traditions. He will extend existing grammatical theories by incorporating key concepts from psycholinguistics. The new framework then will be used to construct quantitative models of experimental data.

In her research, Hartmann uses the rat-whisker system as a model to understand how the brain seamlessly integrates the sense of touch with movement. Rats are nocturnal, burrowing animals that move their whiskers rhythmically to tactually explore the environment. Using only tactile information from its whiskers, a rat can determine all of an object’s spatial properties, including size, shape, orientation and texture. Hartmann’s research group is particularly interested in how sensory feedback is used in real time to guide motor activity and how movement enables sensory acquisition and perception.

In her CAREER award project, “The Virtual Whisking Rat: Linking Mechanics and Sensory Neuroscience,” Hartmann will use novel technologies to quantify how the whiskers move and interact with objects during rat exploratory behavior. She will develop a simulation system to model these interactions. Improved understanding of the rat-whisker system will provide insight into the general functional principles that govern the neural circuits mediating sensing and control.

MacIver’s research focuses on the interplay of biomechanics and the nervous system -- neuromechanics, neuroethology, robotics and simulation -- using weakly electric fish as a model system.

His CAREER award project is titled “The Interdependence of Animal Information Acquisition and Mechanics.” While the nervous system operates with information, the mechanics of the body and the environment in which the nervous system is embedded constitute a world of forces. Work on the mechanics of the body and on the nervous system is rarely undertaken in a joint fashion, in part because of the difficulty of comparing these quantities. There is no science of “infomechanics” -- a theoretical umbrella under which neural information acquisition can be related to mechanics. MacIver’s goal is to uncover principles of infomechanics, using as a biological model system the Amazonian weakly electric fish, which can sense and move omnidirectionally.

Odom’s research group is an experimental group that works with milliKelvin molecular ions held in traps. Fundamental applications of this new technology range from particle physics to chemistry.

His CAREER award project is titled “Precision Spectroscopy of milliKelvin Trapped Molecular Ions.” The award will support an experimental research program to develop new techniques for high-precision measurements on cold-trapped molecular ions. Recent demonstration of sympathetic cooling of charged molecules to sub-Kelvin temperatures has opened the way for improvement in the accuracy available to molecular spectroscopy. However, the fledgling field of cold molecular-ion spectroscopy awaits several technical developments, including preparation of trapped molecules in well-defined excited internal states and development of Doppler-free techniques. Odom will work on developing these techniques and use them to watch for gradual changes of molecular energy levels over the course of several years. This could lead to a revolutionary discovery of time-variation of the electron-proton mass ratio, which actually is expected in models attempting to unify the theories of quantum mechanics and gravity.

Prasad studies how societies create and regulate markets, from the state regulations of the Progressive era to the fair trade labeling and carbon taxes of today. She currently is studying attempts to use taxation as a regulatory tool. In her book “The Politics of Free Markets” (winner of the 2007 Barrington Moore Award) she investigates why the movement to minimize government regulation of markets -- “neoliberalism” -- was so much stronger in the U.S. and Britain than in France and West Germany.

Prasad received a CAREER award for her proposal “Tax Progressivity and American Political Economy.” The U.S. has the most progressive tax system of the advanced industrial countries but is the only country without publicly financed national health care or compulsory national health insurance. Recent scholarship shows an inverse correlation between tax progressivity and welfare effort across the advanced industrial world. But scholars remain divided as to the meaning of this inverse correlation, and no one has traced its history either in the U.S. or any other country. Prasad will assess several hypotheses designed to explain this inverse correlation. She will complete a comparative historical analysis to trace the roots of this paradox and to examine the role of taxation in the development of the American economy.

Thomson’s research efforts revolve around the development of powerful new synthetic transformations, particularly those of N-allylhydrazones. This chemistry will contribute to scientists’ ability to construct complicated molecular structures from simple building blocks, methodology that will have an impact on synthesis in the pharmaceutical industry.

His CAREER award is for his proposal “Unlocking the Synthetic Potential of N-Allylhydrazones.” The project will continue work on developing new reactions and strategies for chemical synthesis. Thomson plans to develop highly useful synthetic methods centered on the use of N-allylhydrazones as readily prepared compounds that can undergo a diverse array of powerful reactions. Specifically, the work will provide inventive reactions and strategies for preparing complex molecules from simple precursors, and the researchers will study the underlying molecular processes. Application of the reactions in the context of target-directed synthesis of bioactive molecules will demonstrate the methods’ usefulness and broader impact.

Watkins-Hayes specializes in urban poverty; social policy; HIV/AIDS; formal organizations (non-profit and government); and race, class and gender. She is a member of IPR’s Cells to Society (C2S): The Center on Social Disparities and Health and is co-organizer of the Web site www.urbanorgs.org, which offers new thinking on organizations, inequality and urban conditions.

Her CAREER award is for her proposal “Resource Attainment and Social Context in Negotiating Illness Among Marginalized Populations.” Watkins-Hayes will continue to study the economic experiences and related social processes of people living with HIV/AIDS, how their financial conditions and economic survival strategies evolve over time, and how these processes shape and are shaped by their health and well-being. Her theorized relationship between economic survival strategies and health maintenance raises critical policy, programmatic and societal questions about how researchers, policymakers and society will address the epidemic’s next frontier: ensuring that the economic and social factors that increase the risk of HIV infection do not further hinder individuals’ abilities to take care of themselves and to contribute to their communities after diagnosis. Watkins-Hayes’ project will rely on a scientific team composed of graduate students, a post-baccalaureate fellow and undergraduates from Northwestern and Watkins-Hayes’ alma mater Spelman College.