Six Ohio State researchers win CAREER awards from NSF

May 26, 2001

COLUMBUS -- Faster drug development, improved computer vision, safer disposal of chemical warfare agents -- all of these could result from the work of Ohio State University faculty members, who each recently received a prestigious award from the National Science Foundation.

Six junior faculty have earned NSF's Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award, which recognizes a young researcher's dual commitment to scholarship and education. Together, the researchers garnered more than $2.5 million in CAREER funding, to be awarded over the next five years.

"These awards confirm that our young faculty are among the best in the nation," said Brad Moore, vice president for research.

"They are leaders in creating the new research and educational programs that will attract the world's best students. These young faculty are defining a truly bright future for OSU."

The following Ohio State faculty were named to receive CAREER awards:

Helen M. Chamberlin, of CLINTONVILLE (43214), assistant professor of Molecular Genetics, will receive $500,000 for her study of evolutionary change in gene regulation.

She wants to know how and why genes turn on and off, and what this means to organisms which look similar, yet have subtle differences in their genetic code. Gene placement can sometimes change how an organism looks and functions, and researchers want to know how those changes occur - and what they mean - at the molecular level.

By studying two species of worms - C. elegans and C. briggsae - Chamberlin hopes to gain insight into why the same gene in each worm is expressed differently. Her work could eventually provide evidence for the precise molecular changes that take place during evolution.

Mark P. Foster, of DUBLIN (43017), assistant professor of biochemistry, will receive $500,000 to study enzyme dynamics.

Enzymes are molecular machines responsible for facilitating and carrying out chemical reactions in the body, such as digesting food and repairing chromosomes. Enzymes are also the target of many medications used to treat bacterial and viral infections as well as cancer and hypertension.

Foster wants to understand how enzymes move. By understanding their motion, researchers can in turn develop medications in a more efficient manner. They could formulate a drug's makeup based on the structure and movement of the target enzyme, for example, which would drastically cut down on the time spent looking for plant compounds that might serve the same purpose.

Researchers could also potentially use this information to engineer new enzymes that could be used in applications from gene therapy to bioremediation.

Rabi Mishalani, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and geodetic science, will receive $375,000 to address the problem of deteriorating transportation infrastructure systems. Roadways, bridges, railways, and airstrips wear down over time.

Daily use and exposure to the elements eventually cause such facilities to crumble if not maintained properly. Mishalani is developing mathematical models and methods that will help managers and engineers inspect infrastructure systems more effectively and make sound maintenance decisions.

For instance, his statistical models will describe how a particular roadway facility deteriorates over time, how its deterioration varies from one location to another, how this deterioration is influenced by design and construction standards, and how it responds to maintenance efforts such as crack sealing, resurfacing, or reconstruction. His decision-making methods will then allow managers to use their budget more effectively to ensure that the roadway provides good service continuously.

Linda K. Weavers, of UPPER ARLINGTON (43221), assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and geodetic science, will receive $375,000 to develop safe, effective, and affordable ways to dispose of the byproducts of compounds used in the production of chemical weapons such as Sarin and other nerve gases.

By law, the U.S. Army must dispose of its chemical weapons stockpile -- more than 30,000 tons of chemical agents -- by 2007. If not for Weavers's work, the Army would have few alternatives to simply incinerating the agents.

She will test whether a combination of water, ultraviolet light, and a chemical called periodate may degrade the byproducts produced when these toxic chemical agents mix with water. This method could destroy nerve gas and other pollutants safer, faster, and cheaper than incineration. One day, it could even treat polluted groundwater at hazardous waste sites or industrial wastewater in factories.

Patrick M. Woodward, of COLUMBUS (43202), assistant professor of chemistry, will receive $569,000 to investigate oxide-based materials for their optical, electronic and catalytic properties.

His work is motivated by the need for new photocatalytic materials and transparent conductors. Photocatalysts are compounds which use light to promote chemical reactions that would not otherwise occur. For example, photocatalysts can decompose unwanted organic contaminants, such as fertilizers, pesticides, and oil spills in wastewater or natural water systems. Photocatalysts can even split water into hydrogen and oxygen, which can later be recombined in a fuel cell to produce electricity. Transparent conductors, meanwhile, are vital components in a number of modern electronic devices including flat panel displays, light emitting diodes, and solar cells.

Woodward's hopes to develop a fundamental understanding of how optical and electronic properties can be controlled by changes in the crystal structure and composition of materials.

Song-Chun Zhu, of COLUMBUS (43221), assistant professor of computer and information science, will receive $340,000 to develop new software and methods for machine vision.

Machine vision research is a testament to the complexity and efficiency of the human mind; researchers have struggled for decades to make computers recognize even the most rudimentary shapes and textures -- objects humans can identify automatically. Zhu founded Ohio State's Vision and Learning Group in 1998 to pursue a single, unified theory of visual perception and learning in computers.

His work may one day lead to highly intelligent computer systems that can interact with people and the real-world environment. Ultimately, being able to reproduce vision in computers could help us understand the human mind.

The CAREER award honors teachers and scholars who are likely to become the academic leaders of 21st century. Since 1996, NSF has given the award to junior faculty who effectively integrate research and education within the context of the mission of their institution.

Ohio State University

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