Engineers Receive $3.2 Million in National Science Foundation CAREER Awards

Feb. 17, 2009

AUSTIN, Texas — Eight engineering assistant professors at The University of Texas at Austin have been awarded Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) awards from the National Science Foundation, an honor which recognizes promising young faculty and supports their research with five years of funding.

The Cockrell School of Engineering's winners include: Adela Ben-Yakar of Mechanical Engineering; Christine Julien of Electrical and Computer Engineering; Mary Jo Kirisits of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering; Alexis Kwasinski of Electrical and Computer Engineering; Laura J. Suggs of Biomedical Engineering; Emanuel Tutuc of Electrical and Computer Engineering; Haris Vikalo of Electrical and Computer Engineering; and Xiaojing (John) Zhang of Biomedical Engineering.

Each received $400,000 or more, bringing the total to $3.2 million-plus.

Ben-Yakar is proposing to develop a new laser surgery technique called "plasmonic laser nanosurgery" that uses nanoscale focusing of light (via metallic nanoparticles) to ablate or vaporize nanoscale structures in live cells and organisms. Because the nanoparticles are also bright-contrast agents when illuminated with ultra-short laser pulses, they can be used with her two-photon microscope probe, which combines both therapeutics and imaging capabilities.

"Together, we have the potential to develop one of the most powerful 'seek-and-treat' tools," Ben-Yakar said.

Julien's work seeks to improve delay-tolerant communication networks, which are characterized by extreme unpredictability of connectivity due to disconnections between senders and receivers that can persist for a long time. Such networks are becoming important due to their increasing applications that enable Internet in remote areas, mobile search, and rescue and social networking.

As part of the project, Julien will develop an adaptive middleware that coordinates the communication among mobile applications that run on devices that are only intermittently connected. The middleware can help mobile software react to frequent configuration changes in the software's environment that occur as devices move and communication capabilities change.

Kirisits' work will focus on the inadvertent adverse effects that engineered nanomaterials may have on microorganisms, with a special focus on bacteria in engineered water systems, biofilm bacteria and beneficial bacteria versus pathogens.

"Results from this research will provide a fundamental understanding of the unintentional role that nanomaterials play in shaping the microbial communities of engineered processes, including those associated with drinking water, wastewater and water reuse—perhaps demonstrating that the presence of nanomaterials changes the balance among benign, beneficial and pathogenic microorganisms in these systems," Kirisits said.

Kwasinski's research will focus on how to improve electric power supply reliability and resiliency by using direct current microgrids—local, self-contained and relatively small electric grids that distribute power using direct current versus the conventional way of using alternating current. His analysis will focus on studying the reliability behavior during hurricanes and earthquakes, when vulnerabilities and interdependencies are manifested more clearly.

"The study will use past and future data from hurricanes and earthquakes in order to estimate in a direct current microgrid its failure probability and duration," Kwasinski said.

Suggs' work involves developing new systems for culturing pluripotent stem cells that have the potential to repair and regenerate tissue in the human heart following an acute event, such as a heart attack. Pluripotent stem cells can give rise to any type of cell in the body except those needed to develop a fetus. To reach the stem cells' potential, the culture of these cell types must move from small-scale laboratory technologies to larger, reproducible industrial processes, Suggs said.

"The results of our work will not only produce new systems for culturing pluripotent stem cells but also delivery systems for controlling cell type and function with the heart of the patients," Suggs said.

Tutuc's project is to develop semiconductor nanowire heterostructures with high-electron mobility by combining state-of-the-art semiconductor growth and processing techniques. Such nanowire heterostructures can serve as high-speed, low-power electronic devices, and can potentially enable cooler, more energy-efficient, high-performance electronic circuits.

Vikalo will focus on improving the signal-processing aspects of biosensor arrays, a lab-on-chip system designed to detect the presence and count the amounts of various biomolecules such as nucleic acids, antibodies and cell receptors. Biosensor arrays are time- and cost-efficient with applications in medicine, drug discovery, defense systems and environmental monitoring.

As part of his work, Vikalo will develop coding strategies that will improve the reliability of biosensor array systems.

Zhang's award will support his research on the integration of nanophotonics with microelectromechanical systems to better understand gene expression under controlled disturbances of live cells and embryos. A unique, luminous probe-based platform will be developed—combining sub-cellular surgery, force sensing and live microscopy—to study a wide range of molecular dynamics in live cells.

"The work could have a profound impact in understanding how environment-induced 'errors' in gene action may lead to birth defects, neurodegenerative disease and cancer," Zhang said.

Ben-Yakar became a university faculty member in 2004. She earned her doctorate in mechanical engineering from Stanford University. Last year she received national and international press coverage for the development of a laser micro-scalpel that can kill individual cells, such as cancer cells, without harming nearby healthy cells or tissue.

Julien earned her doctorate in computer science from Washington University before joining the Cockrell School of Engineering in 2004. In 2006, she was the recipient of a Young Investigator Award from the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

Kirisits earned her doctorate in environmental engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and completed her post-doctoral training at Northwestern University before joining the university faculty in 2004.

Kwasinski earned his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He joined the university faculty in 2007.

Suggs joined the Cockrell School of Engineering in 2004. She earned her Ph.D. in chemical engineering with a concentration in biomaterials and tissue engineering from Rice University. In 2002, she received the National Science Foundation's Advance Fellowship for outstanding women professors.

Tutuc joined the university in 2006. He earned his doctorate in physics from Princeton University and worked as a post-doctoral researcher at IBM TJ Watson Research Center.  In 2008, he was the recipient of a Young Faculty Award from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Vikalo earned his doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford University in 2003 and worked as an associate scientist at the California Institute of Technology before joining the university in 2007.

Zhang earned his doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford University and was a research scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology before joining the university in 2005. He has received the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation Early Career Award and the British Council Early Career RXP Award.

The following links are to the assistant professors' high-resolution headshots:

For more information, contact: Daniel Vargas.