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NSF CAREER Award Recipients

2022 Awardees

Wearing a red dress shirt open at the neck, Frank Aylward of Biological Sciences, poses in front of a Hokie Stone wall. Photo for Virginia Tech by Alex Crookshanks.

Wearing a red dress shirt open at the neck, Frank Aylward of Biological Sciences, poses in front of a Hokie Stone wall. Photo for Virginia Tech by Alex Crookshanks.
Frank Aylward. Photo for Virginia Tech by Alex Crookshanks.

Frank Aylward


Two years in the COVID-19 pandemic, most people are now aware how quickly viruses can pass from person to person and cause widespread illness. But viruses — giant ones — also can be found everywhere in nature. Let’s put it this way, if an organism has a nucleus, it can catch a virus.

Frank Aylward, an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, wants to understand how environmental viruses can literally reshape biological ecosystems. Similar to how COVID-19 changed the very way people interacted and lived — remember those eerie 2020 YouTube drone videos of all-but-silent cities, towns, and college campuses? — viruses can change the way organisms interact and exist in nature.

Woman smiles in front of gray stone building
Photo by Steven Mackay for Virginia Tech.

Lauren Childs


The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how infectious diseases can wreak havoc on modern society and magnified how important it is for scientists to find ways to understand, predict, and better control them.

With a five-year $550,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award, Lauren Childs, an assistant professor with the Virginia Tech Department of Mathematics, seeks to develop mathematical frameworks that can decipher the dynamics of disease and suggest earlier, more effective interventions to mitigate the spread of disease.

“Simple mathematical models are useful tools in understanding patterns of disease spread, particularly in homogeneous populations,” Childs said. “However, real world populations are more complicated. We need to take into account factors like age, genetics, and prior exposure to disease to better identify groups where the disease is most likely to spread, which groups are at the most risk, and how long we should expect epidemics to last.”

man stands at table of computers and looks back at camera
Photo by Steven Mackay for Virginia Tech.

Satoru Emori


We keep much of our digital data in the “cloud” today. All those photos and videos are, at their core, zeros and ones stored on untold millions of magnetic tapes and discs.

These tapes and discs — though a vast improvement over the magnetic tape first used for computers in the 1950s — eat up a lot of energy, fast becoming a big part of the global energy problem. It’s a problem Satoru Emori, an assistant professor in the Virginia Tech Department of Physics, wants to solve. He’ll do this by creating new thin films made of specially engineered magnetic materials, a project funded by a five-year, $500,000 National Science Foundation CAREER award.

“In the long run, this research can help replace clunky magnetic tapes and disks with far more energy-efficient, and yet still economical, magnetic memories,” Emori said.  “We’ll then be able to keep up with the growing demand for more information processing while reducing the global energy consumption.”

Sujith Vijayan
Sujith Vijayan. Photo by Melissa Vergara for Virginia Tech.

Sujith Vijayan


Scientists have long known that when people sleep, the brain performs memory magic.

People who sleep for eight hours after learning something new perform better than those who learn the new task during the day and are tested eight hours later without sleeping in between. More recently, scientists have discovered that odors and sounds presented during sleep can influence brain activity to further enhance the learning and memory benefits of sleep.

Now, Sujith Vijayan, an assistant professor in the School Neuroscience, part of the Virginia Tech College of Science, has received a $696,000 National Science Foundation CAREER award to study whether the brain’s work during sleep can also help people learn tasks associated with brain computer interfaces.

2020 Awardees

man poses in backyard wearing a VT polo shirt
Shengfeng Cheng

Shengfeng Cheng


Paint is an example of a soft matter solution.The drying process of this soft matter solution provides a way to fabricate materials and a way to investigate physics in systems out of equilibrium. With the award, Cheng will use computer simulation techniques and simple physical models to explain the collective behavior of particles intrinsic to the evaporation processes of particle suspensions, polymer solutions, and their mixtures. He will also map out the optimized drying conditions under which the materials have desired structures. The findings will be used to guide the design of new solvent evaporation processes for more efficient material fabrication.

man smiles at camera with stone wall background wearing a blue striped shirt
Sterling Nesbitt.

Sterling Nesbitt


Approximately 252 million years ago, 95 percent of all life on Earth was destroyed in what was the largest mass extinction in Earth’s history. But not long after, there was a sudden surge of reptilian diversity that coursed throughout the land, in the oceans, and in the skies.

“Do communities persist for millions of years? Are the communities that we see outside our very windows always in this state of change or are they pretty stable and it takes a lot of pushing from a natural disaster to move them to a new state?,” asks Nesbitt, an affiliated faculty member of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute and the Global Change Center.

woman stands with hands in pockets and smiles, wearing glasses, blue blazer and blue shirt
Sarah Stamps

d. Sarah Stamps


After billions of years of slowly moving, the interactions between tectonic plates created the geologic formations we see today, such as volcanoes, mountain ranges, valleys, and faults. Stamps will investigate the role of volcanism in early phase continental rifting — the process in which two plates move apart and stretch the continental crust — at the Natron Rift in Tanzania. Stamps and her team of researchers will travel to the Natron Rift in the East African Rift System in Tanzania to collect GPS field data. By using GPS to measure surface motions, they will quantify how the Earth’s surface is moving both vertically and horizontally on the volcano and on the surrounding areas within the rift valley. To learn more, read the full story.

man smiles at camera with library lights and tables receding in the background
Josef Uyeda

Josef Uyeda


With increasing rates of global change, it is vital to understand how and why species either adapt and survive, or fail to adapt and perish. This project builds a bridge between the causes of evolution studied over short timescales and the long-term outcomes evident from existing evolutionary diversity with a new set of computational tools and resources for biology research and education. New models will integrate field, genetic, and experimental studies with patterns of trait change from across the tree of life. Uyeda will apply these models to comprehensive datasets in mammals and fishes to better understand the causes of trait change over million-year timescales and how current global change will affect the long-term outlook of biodiversity. To learn more, read the full story.

For more about all of the 2020 NSF Career Awardees, read: Early career faculty earn 14 National Science Foundation CAREER awards.