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Seven Physical Sciences Faculty Receive 2021 NSF CAREER Awards

Prestigious awards for early career researchers include support for education outreach projects

June 17, 2021 | By Mario Aguilera

061721-nsf.jpgTop (from left to right): Itay Budin, Chunhui Rita Du and Alexis Komor. Bottom (from left to right): Quinn Konopacky, Alina Schimpf, Luca Spolaor and Ming Xiao.

Seven faculty members of UC San Diego’s Division of Physical Sciences have been named to the 2021 class of recipients in the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program.

Awards from the highly competitive NSF CAREER program support early career development activities for those who most effectively integrate research and education. They are the “most prestigious awards in support of 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,” according to the NSF. Activities pursued by early-career faculty should build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership through education and research integration.

The NSF CAREER award recipients for Physical Sciences are:

  • Itay Budin (Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry), who will develop new tools for interrogating lipid function and apply them to understanding how organization emerges in biological systems. The project will test how specific lipid-lipid interactions drive the formation of membrane domains and cellular transport networks. The project also will integrate research systems into an outreach program to improve high school education in quantitative STEM fields such as physics, which is currently lagging in many segments of the American population.

  • Chunhui Rita Du (Department of Physics), a condensed matter experimentalist, who will use imperfections in diamonds to study new quantum materials at the nanoscale. Such sensors are being used to evaluate material systems for the development of next-generation computers and storage devices. Her CAREER award supports an education and outreach plan that promotes the participation of underrepresented minority students into science and technology careers, as well as public access to some of the most exciting developments at the forefront of materials science research.

  • Alexis Komor (Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry), who will use her CAREER award to advance genome editing tools. Some of these tools suffer from unwanted DNA sequence modifications and low efficiencies for certain types of edits. Komor’s project addresses these limitations by furthering a basic understanding of DNA repair mechanisms in editing. The project also includes a research-practice partnership with socioeconomically disadvantaged students in San Diego who will be introduced to genome editing technologies with the goal of engagement in higher education.

  • Quinn Konopacky (Department of Physics), an astrophysicist who uses high resolution techniques on large, ground-based telescopes to study star and planet formation and evolution. Her CAREER award research involves high-resolution imaging and spectroscopic surveys of young planetary systems with a goal of obtaining the first high-resolution spectra of forming gas giant planets, offering a pristine view of their atmospheric structure and abundances. Her team will also develop a novel educational component for undergraduate astronomy courses based on a planetarium-based program.

  • Alina Schimpf (Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry), who conducts research on solid-state metal oxides, a class of materials vital to current and emerging technologies. Her CAREER award research includes the assembly of pre-formed molecular building-blocks as a route to metal oxides with well-defined, broadly tunable compositions and precisely tailored properties. The project includes a platform for community college students to gain research experience designing and studying energy-relevant materials, with a goal of attracting students to STEM and prepare them for future careers.

  • Luca Spolaor (Department of Mathematics), who studies geometric variational problems, which are some of the oldest and most fascinating topics in m Physically these can be observed when three soap bubbles merge on a common line forming a corner or the structure of the transition region of an iceberg melting into water. The goal of the project is to investigate the structure of such singular solutions. One of the project’s major goals is to introduce undergraduate and graduate students to these problems and techniques.

  • Ming Xiao (Department of Mathematics), who will investigate geometric and analytic problems in complex variables and Cauchy-Riemann geometry. The goal is to further the understanding of geometric function theory in several complex variables and connections to geometry, dynamical systems and physics. The project includes educational activities for students of different academic levels and secondary school educators. These include programs in reading-research for high school students, learning-teaching for high school teachers and undergraduate summer school. Students from underrepresented groups will be encouraged to participate.