Sept. 28, 2009

Five more faculty receive NSF early career awards, some with stimulus funding

Cornell faculty members Matthew Belmonte, David Erickson, Christine Goodale, Chris Schaffer and Jeffrey Varner have each received a Faculty Early Career Development Award from the National Science Foundation for demonstrating "excellent research and teaching early in their careers."

The grants fund a specific research project, which usually contains a public outreach component. Belmonte, Goodale, Schaffer and Varner were awarded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA).

Belmonte, assistant professor of human development, was awarded $700,000 over five years to study the behavioral and physiological characteristics of cognition in children with autism and their siblings through experiments using a specially designed suite of video games. Precisely timed experimental tasks are embedded in a set of science fiction-themed video games. Once the children are familiar with the game and the researcher, Belmonte studies their neural network functional connectivity using a high-density EEG as the children engage in the game's various tasks. Belmonte's award funds one full-time position for a research aide.

Erickson, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, will use his five-year $400,000 grant to develop a research area called optofluidics, which combines the study of microfluidics and optics. The work will involve a new class of microfluidic devices to transport, switch and modify light. He also plans to create a "FluidicsWiki" organized around the theme of micro- and nanofluidics to allow user-edited content that can help evolve the field.

Goodale, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, received $536,700 over five years to study ecosystem ecology as it relates to forest nitrogen recycling. Her work will examine important intersections of forest carbon and nitrogen cycles, while employing new and existing field experiments to develop a more complex understanding of the plant, soil, microbial and hydrologic factors that affect nitrogen retention. She also plans activities for an integrated education and outreach program that includes collaboration with the Paleontological Research Institution/Museum of the Earth. The funds will allow Goodale to create a postdoctoral fellow position in her lab, as well as two part-time undergraduate workers. She will also be able to retain the job of her lab manager.

Schaffer, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, received $400,000 over five years to develop tools to introduce genes into specifically targeted brain cells, opening the door to cell-targeted genetic manipulation. The work will involve in vivo experiments that use tightly focused laser pulses to create small, transient holes in the cell membrane, allowing DNA to enter the cell. This work could provide a unique means to study the functional connectivity of cortical neuronal circuits.

In addition to the career award, Schaffer has received $392,862 in ARRA funding from the National Institutes of Health. A postdoctoral associate in his lab, Nozomi Nishimura, also received an NIH grant of $108,664 through ARRA. As a result of the three awards, Schaffer's lab has retained one postdoctoral associate for the next two years, as well as created a lab technician and funded one Ph.D. student.

Varner, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, has received a five-year, $400,000 grant to develop mathematical modeling tools that will help us better understand the behavior of large protein-protein and protein-DNA interaction networks. These tools, which will be applied to the problem of decoding the behavior of stem cells, will advance the state-of-the-art of mechanistic modeling of molecular networks and possibly open the door to new treatments for an array of human diseases, including cancer. Salaries for one graduate and one undergraduate student, both studying chemical engineering, will be supported through Varner's grant.

To date, Cornell has received 106 ARRA awards, totally almost $92.5 million.