Physics and engineering faculty receive NSF CAREER awards for STEM research

Posted by Ayleen Barbel Fattal

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The National Science Foundation (NSF) recognized physicist Jin He and environmental engineer Omar I. Abdul-Aziz as recipients of the Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award.

The award is one of NSF’s most prestigious awards. It supports junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of their institution’s mission.

“I am honored to be a recipient. This award will help me to achieve my career goal as a fine teacher and scholar,” He said. “It will also support my educational outreach activities to enhance diversity in STEM fields.”

The award grants He $500,234 over a period of five years to expand his research in single cell analysis or biophysics.

Professor He’s research focuses on the physical, chemical and biological properties of nanoscale materials and systems. Nanoscale materials are substances that have at least one critical dimension less than 100 nanometers and have unique optical, magnetic or electrical properties.

“Common cells in the human body generate electrical voltage and as a result, an electrical current,” He said. “These bioelectric signals represent biological activity and function such as growth and differentiation.”

Although scientists have measured these bioelectric signals in a general way, He’s research project will attempt to measure such signals in different parts of a cell surface to better characterize cell behavior and function. The signals can then be used as physical measurements to diagnose or treat certain cancers and even heal severe wounds.

Abdul-Aziz will receive $500,000 over a period of four years to study environmental sustainability. Specifically, the award will fund a project to develop a tool to investigate and predict the dynamics of stream water quality and ecosystem health in complex urban-natural basins. His research focuses on topics related to human-natural systems and sustainability sciences while looking at engineering from at-site, regional and global scales.

“This tool will help stakeholders and government agencies to manage water quality,” Abdul-Aziz said.

In addition to providing authorities with a way to determine which streams are appropriately clean for uses such as fishing, swimming and boating, Abdul-Aziz’s research will help to ensure that those streams do not become breeding grounds for disease.

By using data collected by various agencies about levels of nitrogen and phosphates, plant biomass and salinity, Abdul-Aziz will work to develop learning models for minority STEM undergraduates and formulate simple tools using Microsoft Excel for K-12 students.

The awards presented to He and Abdul-Aziz are two of only 146 CAREER awards granted nationwide by the NSF’s Directorate for Engineering in 2015.

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