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Six Science faculty win NSF CAREER awards to spark research, break barriers

Six assistant professors from the College of Science won the National Science Foundation’s CAREER grant in 2017 and 2018. These awards are the NSF’s most prestigious award, given to creative junior faculty who excel at being both teachers and scholars and are considered to be academic lead­ers of the future. Awardees are given a five-year federal grant to sponsor research and education activities. The amount of the award varies de­pending on the project.

“The is the first time the College of Science has won three CAREER Awards two years in a row,” said Randy Heflin, associate dean for research and graduate studies. Winners came from the departments of Biological Sciences, Chemistry (two), Geosciences, Mathematics, and Statistics. Three of the winners have dual appointments in the College’s Academy of Integrated Science, and a third is an affiliated faculty member of the School of Neuroscience.

We asked each of the winners about their project and what fuels their love of science.

Julianne Chung. Headshots for the Virginia Tech College of Science.

Julianne Chung
Julianne Chung of the Department of Mathematics, and Computational Modeling and Data Analytics program


Department of Mathematics, and Computational Modeling and Data Analytics 

Award amount:  $400,000

Project goal: Advance mathematical theory and create new tools to cut the costs and time scientists spend from their initial observations to making informed decisions.

Why this project? In many scientific applications such as astronomy, geophysics, bioinformatics, and optics, data are being generated at ever-increasing rates. I will develop new mathematical and statistical tools to extract relevant information from these large data sets. These methods exploit tools from numerical linear algebra, statistics, and scientific computing to address what is often the largest impediment to obtaining images in real-time.

What’s next? One highlight of a research career is participating in workshops and conferences. This summer I look forward to various meetings where I can network with researchers in different fields and learn about new research projects.

Why science? In college, I was a math major and did well in my classes, but I never considered graduate school. It wasn’t until I did an undergraduate honors research project during my senior year with an amazing mentor, Dr. James Nagy, that I decided to continue in a PhD program. …One of my greatest joys is seeing my developed methods being used to solve critical problems in medicine, science, and engineering.

Dream research project? As a dance and movement studies minor in college, I loved to perform and choreograph modern dance pieces. I always found that mathematics and dance have so much in common, although they seem to be at different ends of the spectrum. It would be a dream project of mine to develop a contemporary dance piece that incorporates the beauty and technicality of my mathematics research.

Read more about Julliane Chung's research.


Portraits of Virginia Tech College of Science faculty and staff

Leah Johnson
Leah Johnson of the Department of Statistics, and Computational Modeling and Data Analytics program


Department of Statistics, and Computational Modeling and Data Analytics

Award amount: $700,000

Project goal: Improving mathematical and statistical models for vector-borne diseases, such as dengue and huanglongbing (HLB), commonly known as citrus greening.

Why this project? I've been working on models for vector-borne diseases for a few years now, focusing on improving how we include environmental factors, such as temperature, into mechanistic models of disease spread. This project will allow me to take this effort further: to improve current models, incorporate more detail and data, and better quantify uncertainty in transmission. I’m focusing on infections such as dengue in humans and HLB in trees because these systems are data-rich so we can test the models we develop against observations of transmission.

What’s next? Part of the excitement of the CAREER projects is that you get to spend time thinking about the really novel and interesting questions in your field. Moving forward I'd like to keep thinking about the big picture question of how the environment impacts transmission of vector-borne diseases, but expand into other kinds infections. I’m especially curious about tick-borne infections.

Why science? I was originally captivated by the stars — I wanted to be an astronaut! I was inspired to pursue science reading about Stephen Hawking’s theories on how the universe works. Since I loved math, too, physics seemed a natural fit. But when I was in graduate school I discovered that I could use the physics and math I knew to understand how diseases spread how animals behave. I fell in love with biology.

Dream research project? I’ve previously studied albatross behavior. I’d be really keen to study diseases in albatrosses and someday have the opportunity to actually travel to the Antarctic region to see them up close. And I would love to participate in something such as the Homeward Bound Project, a leadership in science initiative for women.

Read more about Leah Johnson's research.

Head shots/portraits for faculty and staff in the College of Science at Virginia Tech.

Guoliang 'Greg' Liu of the Department of Chemistry


Department of Chemistry

Award amount: $585,000

Project goal: Use extremely thin nanofibers to cover windows in buildings and cars in a multi-prong effort to cut energy consumption in buildings and automobiles, and reduce often bright, blinding glare.

Why this project? On a beautiful sunny summer day, I get in my car, which has a crazily high temperature inside. I immediately turn on the air conditioner, but the car won’t cool down until I have driven more than a mile or two. That bothers me. On a regular day, no matter in the summer or in the winter, I walk into a building and see either the air conditioner or the heater running constantly. That bothers me. Not because of the uncomfortableness of the first mile of driving, nor because of the loud air conditioner or heaters, but because of the amount of energy that is consumed by heating or cooling.

What’s next? We will try to use polymers, nanoparticles, and other materials to develop the next-generation speakers in cell phones, laptops, tablets, and home theaters, which could then consume only a fraction of the energy that they need today. We also are developing porous carbon fibers that are lightweight, flexible, and strong and can be potentially used in batteries, supercapacitors, and fuel cells.

Why science? The curiosity of science and the urge to solving daily-life problems inspired me to select science as a career.

Dream research project? I haven't figured that out yet. If I have figured out my dream research project, I am probably working on it now.

Read more about Greg Liu's research.


Head shots/portraits for faculty and staff in the College of Science at Virginia Tech.

Kendra Sewall
Kendra Sewall of the Department of Biological Sciences and School of Neuroscience

Department of Biological Sciences, and School of Neuroscience

Award amount: $830,000

Project goal: Understand how social interactions support or impair brain function and cognition.

Why this project? I have two young children and when I was making decisions about childcare I thought about the quality of social interactions they would have in different daycare settings. I decided to look into the neuroscience research on the importance of social experiences and was surprised to find that we don’t know much about how the quality of social interaction influences the brain and cognition. My lab studies how early life conditions influence learning and brain function in songbirds because they learn their vocalizations in a way similar to how humans learn speech. I realized that our research could fill this important gap.

What’s next? My research interests are relevant to social issues so outreach is important to me. This summer my lab will be working with local teachers as part of a research experience for teachers funded by the CAREER award.

Why science? My father had polio when he was very young and soon after I left home for college, he developed symptoms of post-polio syndrome. I found a journal article on post-polio syndrome and, though the knowledge of what was happening to my father didn’t change the outcome, it gave me a new understanding of what he was experiencing. From that point since, science has been a way for me to more fully understand the world.

Dream research project? I love sailing and grew up in Maine, so my dream research project would be to run a long-term study of wild bird populations on an island in Maine. Ideally, I’d find a collaborator with a similar long-term study on an island in the Caribbean, and I’d spend a few months each winter monitoring birds down there!

Read more about Kendra Sewall's research. 


Nick Mayhall
Nick Mayhall of the Department of Chemistry

Department of Chemistry

Award amount: $575,000

Project goal: Exploit certain aspects of a molecule’s structure to enable more accurate approximations for quantum chemistry simulations.

Why this project? I decided to pursue this particular project because of how different it is from existing approaches. The underlying physical concepts in this project connect old foundational ideas in our field (many-body expansions) to more current ideas (tensor decompositions) and I'm really excited to see how these conceptual frameworks will coexist, or not.

What's next? We have already demonstrated that the main ideas in this project hold promise. Now, the next steps are to further develop the software and theory so that they can be applied to interesting problems in chemistry, biochemistry, and materials.

Why science? I never really considered any other career. It’s really just a lot of fun to work on things which might offer the rare opportunity to think about something that hasn’t been thought of before.

Dream research project. To suggest a theory which receives ridicule by the field but is ultimately determined to be correct. Everyone loves those kinds of stories.

Read more about Nick Mayhall's NSF-funded research. 

F. Marc Michel
F. Marc Michel of the Department of Geosciences, and the Nanoscience program

Department of Geosciences, and Nanoscience

Award amount: $560,000

Project goal: Advance innovative research on how the smallest minerals, known as nanoparticles, crystallize in nature.

Why this project? It has the potential to shed new light on a process that we thought was fully understood. This process, known as crystallization, is not only responsible for forming the minerals in rocks, but also bones, pharmaceuticals, snowflakes, and much more. The project builds directly on my prior experience and expertise in environmental nanoscience.

What’s next? Our primary goal is to better understand how natural nanoparticles made of aluminum, silicon, and oxygen – the three most abundant elements in Earth’s crust – form in nature. This requires that we are able to first create artificial versions of these materials in the laboratory. Once synthesized, we can then use different tools to investigate their characteristics and behavior.

Why science? I never aspired to become a scientist or professor. Soon after finishing my bachelor of arts in geology with a minor in art and art history, I was hired as a hydrogeologist at a small environmental consulting company near Boston. I left the company about four years later intent on pursuing an applied master’s degree in order to become licensed and eventually open my own consulting company. That plan changed within just the first few months of graduate school when my eyes were opened to basic science research, particularly in the area of nanoscience. … I am fascinated by how science and technology can create solutions to many different problems that impact humans and the environment.

Dream research project? Two of the most important issues facing humanity are limited access to clean water and sustainable energy. My dream is to do research that contributes to solving both these problems. An important component of many possible solutions, and one that I believe my group can contribute to will be development of new materials for next-generation water treatment and energy-producing technologies.

Read more about Marc Michel's NSF-funded research.