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19 ASU faculty receive NSF CAREER awards

June 27, 2022

Awards total $12 million in grant funding for researchers

Researchers at Arizona State University have earned 19 National Science Foundation early faculty career awards dating back to June 2021. The new awards total $12 million in funding for ASU researchers in grants that will be used over the next five years. 

The work covers subjects that explore a wide variety of science and technology, from advancing AI-based data processing to measuring the cosmological signatures of stars and galaxies to understanding infants’ development of curiosity to enhancing 3D-printing precision. 

The NSF’s Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) program identifies the nation’s most promising young faculty members and provides them with funding to pursue outstanding research, excellence in teaching and the integration of education and research. Often, these awards spur the creativity of the faculty member and help set them on an innovative career path. To date, more than 200 ASU faculty members have earned NSF CAREER awards.

“The 19 ASU NSF CAREER award recipients exemplify the best of our ASU faculty,” said Nancy Gonzales, executive vice president and university provost. “Each scholar is committed to research that improves our world, while demonstrating equal dedication to their teaching, guiding and mentoring students to achieve their highest potential. 

“I am proud that these honorees come from a range of academic disciplines at ASU, including engineering, psychology and the sciences. On behalf of the Academic Enterprise, I congratulate you on this well-deserved award.”

Here is a look at the current ASU NSF CAREER award recipients:

Abhinav Acharya, assistant professor, School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy

Acharya works at the interface of the immune system and engineering. His efforts include the isolation and identification of disease biomarkers and natural therapeutics, as well as biomaterials synthesis and translational technology development. The results of his NSF research could enable the development of vaccines to treat diseases such as cancer and rheumatoid arthritis. Read more

Kumar Ankit, assistant professor, School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy 

Ankit is leading the first integration of computational, experimental and characterization techniques to better understand how processing methods affect steel microstructures and their properties, such as strength and hardness. This project will add new knowledge to the field and help optimize the future of steel manufacturing. Read more 

Christina Birkel, assistant professor, School of Molecular Sciences

Birkel is working to create new materials that can be used for renewable energy, catalysts and permanent magnets. Materials are all around us and are the driving force for new and innovative solid-state technologies centered on batteries, sensors and magnets. Birkel’s projects focus on solid compounds that contain different metals and either carbon, nitrogen or both, called carbides, nitrides or carbonitrides, respectively. Read more 

Katelyn Cooper assistant professor, School of Life Science 

Cooper is a biology education researcher whose work seeks to understand the relationship between biology learning environments and undergraduate and graduate student mental health. Her research aims to identify factors of student research experiences that positively and negatively impact mental health, and to develop tools and resources to support students throughout their research experiences. Read more 

Deliang Fan, assistant professor, School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering

Fan is conducting electrical and computer engineering research to validate the performance of a new hybrid in-memory computing system. The concept behind his work is to leverage memory device and circuit properties in ways that will advance AI-based big data processing fields such as computer vision, autonomous driving and robotics. Read more 

Emma Frow, assistant professor, School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering and School for the Future of Innovation in Society

Frow studies the role of care in responsible innovation for bioengineering. Her work will document the growth and development of a new type of facility for high-throughput design and genetic engineering called "biofoundries.” Her research aims to design interventions or tools that can help attune practitioners to the politics of care and responsibility, and shape the governance of these foundries. Read more

Gillian Gile, associate professor, School of Life Sciences 

Gile studies the diversity and evolution of microbial eukaryotes, otherwise known as protists. Despite their microscopic size, protists are more closely related to plants and animals than to bacteria, and they play important roles in ecosystems such as soil and marine plankton. Her research examines protists that live in termite hindguts and digest wood to understand the origin and evolutionary dynamics of the termite microbiome.

Christian Hoover, assistant professor, School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment

Hoover’s research focuses on further understanding the synergistic effects of composition, porosity and structural rigidity on the mechanics of glassy metal-organic frameworks. These porous materials have the ability to be used for several applications, especially in carbon dioxide capture, separation and storage. Read more 

Daniel Jacobs, assistant professor, School of Earth and Space Exploration 

Jacobs is an interdisciplinary scientist across the areas of astrophysics, cosmology, experimental physics and aerospace engineering. His primary research focus is measuring cosmological signatures of the first stars and galaxies in the early universe with custom radio arrays. The award will be used for observation with existing radio arrays, to improve radio arrays and to develop new technology to support future experiments. Read more 

Kelsey Lucca, assistant professor, Department of Psychology

Lucca’s research investigates cognitive development during infancy and early childhood, with a focus on the development of curiosity, social cognition, communication and problem-solving. The award will help her explore the psychological processes involved in curiosity starting in infancy.

Yuval Mazor, assistant professor, School of Molecular Sciences

Mazor's research focus is the structural biology of the membrane complexes involved in oxygenic photosynthesis. His research explores new approaches in cryogenic electron microscopy (cryo-EM) that are revolutionizing the abilities to understand the role of structure for different functions carried out by essential protein supercomplexes. Read more 

Troy McDaniel, assistant professor, The Polytechnic School

McDaniel is exploring how intelligent wearable technology can enable older adults with memory challenges to live independently. Using visual recognition, this novel hardware, placed strategically on the wrist, deciphers hand movements and identifies objects in the environment through a camera lens, providing insight to a user’s behaviors to aid cognitive decline. Read more 

Anamitra Pal, assistant professor, School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering

Pal conducts fundamental and applied research in the power and energy systems domain. His project employs robust statistics and machine learning to real-time data for better monitoring and control of our national electric power infrastructure, helping to ensure the reliable and resilient operation of the electric power grid. Read more

Kenan Song, assistant professor, The Polytechnic School 

Song is developing a new additive manufacturing method called Multiphase Direct Ink Writing to enhance 3D printing precision of ordered patterns at nanoscales. This method can be used for rapid prototyping of sensors and for applications in supercapacitors, batteries and regenerative medicine. Read more 

Beckett Sterner, assistant professor, School of Life Sciences

Sterner examines issues in the philosophy of biology and medicine. His research studies how and why pluralism — advancing multiple approaches to an issue — makes a difference to current and historical practices of computational science. He is applying these insights to develop novel, collaborative approaches to making data and models relevant to global societal challenges such as biodiversity.

Xiaojun Tian, assistant professor, School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering

Tian employs quantitative experiments and mathematical modeling to expand the understanding of fundamental problems in systems and synthetic biology. His exploration of molecular and cellular mechanisms could enable the synthesis of new therapeutics, the expansion of sustainable agriculture and the production of renewable resources. Read more 

Arul Mozhy Varman, assistant professor, School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy 

Varman is developing advanced metabolic engineering computational tools and strategies to harness the capabilities of microbial cell factories for the sustainable production of chemicals, fuels and pharmaceuticals. His work to optimize genetic and metabolic processes can have an impact on the production of bulk chemicals, fuels and pharmaceuticals. Read more

Ruoyu “Fish” Wang, assistant professor, School of Computing and Augmented Intelligence

Wang is working on research to mitigate the effects of malware and computer viruses by making the vulnerabilities in software easily understandable. His research may enable analysts and researchers to uncover source code in a manner that identifies vulnerabilities to protect them from malware. Read more 

Jia Zou, assistant professor, School of Computing and Augmented Intelligence

Zou is designing a new database that seamlessly supports and optimizes the deployment, storage and serving of both traditional machine learning models and deep neural network models. This work significantly decreases latency in databases that rely on real-time results, such as credit card fraud detection and emergency services response. Read more

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EPICS teams earn funding from spring pitch competition


June 27, 2022

Top teams of social entrepreneurship students competed this spring for additional funding to deliver and sustain their innovations in a pitch competition from the Engineering Projects in Community Service, or EPICS, program in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University.

On March 30, this national, award-winning, social entrepreneurship program held its EPICS Elite Pitch Competition powered by the eSeed Challenge. Group photo of the ASU EPICS team. Arizona State University students from the Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) team Project Koyash stand in front of ASU’s Engineering Student Center with their prototype air filter. In this social entrepreneurship program, student teams design, build and deploy systems to solve engineering-based challenges for communities. Pictured from left to right: Sarah Johnston, Tommy Montero, Catherine Johnston, Jalen Goode, Bryan Yavari and Shamsher Warudkar. Photo courtesy Lauren Kobley Download Full Image

Eight out of the 60 teams in the program competed by presenting their projects to a panel of four expert judges and an audience of students, faculty and industry members. Each team pitched their solution and implementation plan to win part of the $10,000 in funding being awarded that evening.

The judges asked students grueling questions to determine which teams they found most deserving of the award and most likely to deliver their solution within the next six to 12 months. After deliberation, four of the eight teams received funding and their spot as one of the EPICS Elite teams of 2022.

Providing clean air to communities in need

Project Koyash won first place among the teams and was awarded $6,000 in funding. They partner with the Taiwan Fund for Children and Families to provide air filters for nomadic communities in Mongolia. Due to climate change and drought, major food sources have been diminished for these communities in Mongolia, which has forced them to relocate to the overpopulated city of Ulaanbaatar.

Due to petroleum product burning, wood-burning stoves, industrial operations and the large population, the air in Ulaanbaatar has a high amount of air pollution, making it unhealthy to breathe. The team’s goal is to filter the air within the homes of these nomadic communities so that it is safe to breathe. They have delivered one prototype to their community partner in a pilot test to collect data.

The team is now testing their second prototype, which is completely autonomous and will use their new funding from EPICS Elite to create 12 filters — matching the total number of homes they are partnering with — and send them to Ulaanbaatar.

Students Sarah Johnston, Shamsher (Shami) Warudkar, Bryan Yavari, Malone Roark, Aniket Chatterjee, Tommy Montero, Jalen Goode and Catherine Johnston are working hard to successfully reach these goals with the new funding they received.

Sustainable water use in agriculture

The second-place team, Vietnam Smart Agriculture, was awarded a total of $2,500 to help fund their future project expenses. Farming accounts for 13% of Vietnam’s GDP, with 80% of total water use, according to the General Statistics Office of Vietnam. The country is also suffering from inefficient water usage. By partnering with rural farmers in Vietnam, the team is hoping to increase the efficiency and sustainability of water usage.

For their prototype, the team has created a hand-held device that measures different aspects of the soil, such as moisture content, temperature and more. They have also been working on an app for farmers to use to receive alerts about changes in their soil. Their goal is to encourage more sustainable irrigation habits.

The team plans to use their funding to purchase new materials to test the structural integrity of their prototype. Some team members will be traveling to Vietnam in August to collect data and test their prototype.

Monitoring water quality for shrimp farming

The Vietnam Sustainable Shrimp Farming team tied for third place, earning $1,000 in funding. This team partners with Alex Downs, a subject matter expert living in Vietnam, to decrease the mismanagement of aquaculture, specifically shrimp farming.

Poor water quality is a detrimental issue in shrimp farming. Many farmers’ livelihood is based on the successful harvest of their shrimp, and it can bankrupt families if shrimps are diseased because the whole pond they live in must be discarded.

The team is creating a floating device that connects to a smartphone app to alert farmers when there are changes in their pond’s water chemistry. The team said, “It is central to our project to ensure we do not encroach upon their livelihoods and their knowledge of the industry; we would like to respect their experience as farmers, which is an experience that almost none of the current team members have.”

The Vietnam Sustainable Shrimp Farming team strives to give shrimp farmers a tool to allow them to more rapidly react to changing water chemistry. They will be sending several team members to Vietnam in August to see firsthand how their design is working and learn how they could alter it to further benefit the farmers.

The Navajo Mountain Bike Initiative also earned third place and $1,000 in funding. Partnering with Engineers Without Borders, this EPICS team is building a mountain bike circuit trail, also known as a bike pump track, and other bike trails for the Navajo Nation. The team and their community partner are building them on Navajo K-12 school campuses so that they will be available to the students as part of the schools’ physical education program. 

The team works with the people of the Navajo Nation to understand their culture and the best opportunities to implement solutions. The cross-country mountain bike trails the team is working on are intended to be the engine for economic development. These trails can be from point to point or in loops. A loop trail might be 1 to 5 miles, whereas point-to-point trails could be up to 15 or 20 miles long.

Such low-impact economic development would enable Navajo residents to live and work on the reservation instead of leaving to find work. The trails are intended to promote tourism and bring in money through parking fees, lodging, food and other sources. They have also received bike and helmet donations from REI.

The team has a trip planned in the fall to bring these bikes and helmets to the community, and they are hoping to start working on their Shonto bike trail next semester. They plan to focus their funding on building bike trails because it is something that will bring in greater income opportunities to the community and be sustainable over time.

Lauren Kobley

Student writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering