Six University of Tennessee, Knoxville, researchers have received prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER awards for the 2020 submission period. The recipients include three faculty from the College of Arts and Sciences, two from the Tickle College of Engineering, and one from the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences—all assistant professors. Since 1995, 77 UT researchers have received an NSF CAREER award.
“We are so proud of our 2020–21 CAREER awardees,” said Vice Chancellor for Research Deborah Crawford. “They join a community of highly accomplished UT faculty whose expertise spans the spectrum of science and engineering domains and whose contributions to research and education position Tennessee for leadership in the global innovation economy.”
In previous years, UT faculty with CAREER projects have contributed to the fundamental understanding of immunology, sustainable urban water management, quantum materials, and the future of agriculture and food production.
The CAREER award is one of the highest honors a junior faculty member in science or engineering can receive. Each award includes a five-year grant of at least $400,000 to establish a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research.
CAREER Award Winners
Assistant Professor of Materials Science and Engineering Mahshid Ahmadi’s research involves designing what are known as organic inorganic halide perovskites—a general term for a class of materials that can be made from combining several different metallic elements such as lead and tin, organic molecules, and halides to form a perovskite structure.
“Earning a CAREER award from the NSF is quite an honor, and it reflects well upon both my work and that of my research collaborators,” Ahmadi said. “I look forward to the advancements that will be made possible thanks to this award and the support that comes with it.”
Jessica Budke, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and director of UT’s Herbarium, received a CAREER award for her work on parent–offspring conflict in mosses. Over the next five years, her research group will study the evolution of structures enabling moss offspring to take more resources for their growth and concurrently the evolution of parental structures that help them conserve resources for their own survival and future reproduction—what Budke refers to as an “evolutionary arms race.”
“We are trying to think about this in terms of how plants live in the world,” Budke said. “Evolution can occur over long periods of time, but with this research, we are zooming in on a single generation to understand how parents influence their offspring, specifically how they provide the resources they need to survive, thrive, and produce the next generation of mosses.”
Through critical community-engaged scholarship and in collaboration with Black and Latinx families, teachers, and two community organizations, Frances Harper, assistant professor in the Department of Theory and Practice in Teacher Education, will co-design and co-study two educational programs aimed at advancing racial justice in elementary mathematics. The first program seeks to build parents’ capacity to catalyze change across classrooms and schools, and the second will provide professional development that supports elementary teachers of mathematics to learn with and from Black and Latinx families.
Through her research, Harper aims to understand how to foster and increase Black and Latinx parents’ engagement in solidarity with community organizations and teachers to provide a model for other communities and schools seeking to advance racial justice in mathematics education.
“By the end of the project,” explained Harper, “the goal is to bring together a dedicated group of teachers, parents and caregivers, and community partners who can lead change in the mathematics education of Black and Latinx children.”
Olivia Prosper, assistant professor of mathematics, aims to create a methodology that finds the most cost-effective approach to data collection for a given mathematical model. Mathematical modeling of infectious disease is a valuable tool for improving the understanding of disease spread and for answering “what if” questions about different control measures. However, a mismatch between the data available and the data needed to inform a model could lead to erroneous conclusions about which control policies will be most effective at achieving a particular goal.
“The methods and framework developed in the project have the potential to transform how modeling and empirical work are conducted by providing a concrete way to inform experimental design a priori and in such a way that mathematical models can be useful to empiricists at a feasible cost,” Prosper said.
As part of the award, Prosper will develop a series of educational modules that will engage undergraduate students in the fundamentals of mathematical modeling, coding, and visualization, using a collaborative and inquiry-based approach.
“I am targeting math novices, or students that come to college with little to no calculus experience,” Prosper said. “I want to challenge the idea that students have to come to college knowing math and calculus to be able to pursue degrees in STEM.”
Assistant Professor Hector Pulgar of the Min H. Kao Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science is using emerging technology to improve the flow of energy into the power grid, particularly from nontraditional sources.
“Increasing the use of energy from things like solar energy and wind turbines requires that we come up with new control systems and look at how they interact with existing control mechanisms in a variety of operational conditions,” said Pulgar. “If we make these advancements, not only will we have an impact on making the grid more stable, but it can help the environment at the same time by helping us continue to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.”
Included in his proposal is an educational plan that will leverage the research through specific projects, including the creation of mentoring programs targeted for Latinx American students at both precollege and college.
Kimberly Sheldon, assistant professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, studies how temperature impacts the development and survival of insects, and how rising temperatures are expected to result in insect population declines. However, insects might compensate for temperature increases by shifting their behavior to take advantage of cooler microclimates in their environment. To understand the potential for behavioral shifts to buffer organisms from warming, Sheldon’s CAREER project will expose tropical and temperate dung beetles, an ecologically and economically beneficial insect group, to temperature increases using laboratory experiments and field manipulations. The research will be integrated with a Native American high school education program and undergraduate internships to support STEM literacy and interest in STEM fields among diverse students.
Sheldon, who joined the UT faculty in 2016, credits the backing she received from her colleagues and the college for her successful grant proposal.
“I was given the encouragement and freedom to pursue my research goals and develop the education program that led to the CAREER award,” Sheldon said. “I also have great collaborators in Ecuador and with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians who have supported the research and education goals and talented lab members who gathered some of the preliminary data that went into the proposal.”
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