This article was updated on March 30, 2023.
Four assistant professors in the George R. Brown School of Engineering at Rice University are the latest recipients of NSF CAREER Awards.
They are Taiyun Chi, electrical and computer engineering; Lauren Stadler, civil and environmental engineering; Todd Treangen, computational biologist and assistant professor of computer science (CS); and Hanyu Zhu, materials science and nanoengineering.
The awards from the National Science Foundation are given annuvally to some 400 young scientists and engineers in the U.S. 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.”
In 2022, a record eight engineering faculty members from Rice received CAREER Awards, along with four members of the Wiess School of Natural Sciences faculty.
Chi will use his $500,000 grant to fund development of an implanted neural interface with neural recording channel counts more than 10 times higher than current state-of-the-art technology. He will also develop a noninvasive deep-brain-stimulation system based on temporally interfering electromagnetic waves.
Neural interfaces are tools for better understanding the brain, and are used increasingly in clinical applications. Emerging brain-machine interfaces built on large-scale neural recording, for instance, can decipher brain activities. The decoded information can be used to control neural prosthetics to restore lost sensory or motor functions for paralyzed patients.
In addition, deep brain stimulation has proven effective in treating certain disorders by injecting a pulsed current with a predefined pattern.
“These results are highly encouraging,” Chi said, “but to fully unlock the potential of neural interfaces for future human clinical use, new device capabilities need to be developed with significantly improved hardware performance. The goal is to have an impact on the designs in future brain-machine interfaces, neural prostheses and the treatment of brain disorders.”
Stadler earned a five-year, $553,597 grant for her proposal to modify microorganisms and use them to treat wastewater. Her plan concentrates on engineering bacteria and will exploit a technique known as horizontal gene transfer (HGT), the movement of genetic material between microorganisms rather than the transmission of DNA from parent to offspring.
“If harnessed properly, HGT could be used to precisely engineer microbiomes for environmental bioremediation, the inactivation of microbial pathogens or the recovery of valuable chemicals from wastewater,” Stadler said. The mechanisms that drive these transfers are not fully understood.
“Our goal is to advance our ability to precisely engineer microbial communities. One application we plan to study is the manipulation of a wastewater treatment microbial community so it more efficiently produces certain useful compounds, such as volatile fatty acids. These are precursors that can be converted to valuable products such as bioplastics and biofuels,” Stadler said.
Treangen’s five-year, $599,943 award is funded by the Division of Information and Intelligent Systems within the NSF Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering. His research will focus on developing computational approaches for identifying and characterizing microbial DNA not previously observed.
“We are in the golden age of our ability to read and write DNA. The sequencing of genomic data found in nature is now democratized, opening the door to a digital library of countless documents of evolutionary history,” Treangen said. “For SARS-CoV-2 alone there are now over 15 million genomes, and there are multiple petabytes of data available for download from the publicly accessible Sequence Read Archive (SRA).”
By leveraging this mass of publicly available data in the SRA, Treangen will pioneer new approaches for pathogen detection and monitoring by using scalable and accurate computational strategies. The work will employ existing approaches to biosurveillance coupled with innovative computational approaches.
The computational approaches will be combined into a platform being created by Treangen called GuarDNA. “It will integrate everything into the first-of-its-kind comprehensive platform designed for genomics-based biosecurity and biosurveillance,” he said.
Zhu received a five-year, $653,000 grant from the NSF for his proposal, “Probing Quantum Materials Modified by Terahertz Quantum Fluctuations.”
“Such fluctuations are usually negligible in daily life, though theoretically they can grow large when we reduce the wavelength of standing waves and pack many possible waves into a very small volume,” Zhu said. “No need for energy to create new waves, but just collect existing waves from the vacuum.”
According to recent theoretical and experimental research, such fluctuating waves may be sufficiently powerful to change such properties of materials as atomic structure, electrical conductivity and magnetism. Zhu hopes to answer some of these fundamental questions in what he calls “this new paradigm of fluctuation-modified materials.”
“We intend to leverage the natural mixture of electromagnetic waves and atomic vibrations – called phonon-polaritons – in many ionic crystals,” Zhu said. “Near the vibrational resonance, which is in the terahertz frequencies, the wavelength of the mixed wave shrinks so the quantum fluctuation will be enhanced.”
Zhu plans to measure the fast quantum fluctuation of the light and matter inside micrometer-scale volumes at near absolute zero temperatures and track the modified energy evolution and properties of the materials. He expects the results to provide insights into optimizing materials by harvesting quantum forces.