July 15, 2024

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Four UO researchers win NSF awards for early career faculty

Four University of Oregon researchers have received the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious honor for early-career faculty members in the past year. 

Through its Faculty Early Career Development Program, known as the CAREER Awards, the organization recognizes and fosters rising stars by funding innovative research.

“We are proud of our most recent CAREER Award recipients and excited to see the results of their important research in the upcoming years,” said Anshuman “AR” Razdan, vice president for research and innovation. “This is yet another recognition by NSF of the great faculty we are hiring at UO. For faculty who are just starting out, five years of guaranteed funding is transformative.”

Razdan added that each of the research projects fits squarely with emerging priorities for the university, including innovation and accelerating impact, elevating the human experience and scholarship for a changing world.

Another priority is to create a campus where people flourish. CAREER Awards make it possible for researchers to take risks, follow their passion, and develop research programs early in their careers, Razdan said. The grants also make it easier for them to teach, learn and disseminate knowledge while continuing their research.

The NSF awards the five-year grants to spur the advancement of faculty members with assistant professor or an equivalent rank and the promise to become role models in research and education while leading the way for their department or organization. By funding their research, the foundation aims to help emerging academic leaders establish a solid foundation for success. 

CAREER Award recipients:

Jennifer Ruef, an associate professor in the College of Education, studies math instruction. For her project, Ruef is researching student perceptions of math and partnering with teachers to improve how they teach math. 

Tracking, a common practice that divides students into different course levels, has been shown to disproportionately hinder marginalized students. And research shows it’s ineffective. By studying and supporting de-tracked Oregon middle school math instruction, Ruef will discover what works and opportunities to improve, insights that can add up to new solutions.

Luca Mazzucato, an associate professor of biology, mathematics and physics, wants to get in the zone, or just learn more about it. When we’re either too tired or too wired, cognitively demanding tasks get harder. But the sweet spot in the middle, intermediate arousal, enables optimal brain performance. 

Many have studied how humans and other species function in the zone. But Mazzucato wants to understand how the brain reaches it and stays there. His project explores peak performance at the neural level.

Brittany Erickson, assistant professor of computer science and earth sciences, studies why some faults slip suddenly and cause big earthquakes, while others move steadily or produce smaller, more frequent tremors. Faults are miles underground, so scientists rely on computer models and clues at the earth’s surface. 

Erickson’s project will help make computer modelling of earthquakes faster and cheaper. Using data about faults we already understand, her team will train an innovative artificial intelligence system to create new models and compare results to traditional methods.

Julia Widom, assistant professor of chemistry, studies the dynamic structures of large biological molecules like DNA and RNA. Those molecules often switch between different structures, which affects the way they function in the body.

 Her project aims to develop new methods to create high-resolution videos of macromolecules that more accurately capture their structures. By measuring how these molecules change over time, researchers can better tap into their potential applications as drug targets, biomarkers and more.

— By Ed Dorsch, University Communications
Top photo (from left): Julia Widom, Jennifer Ruef, Luca Mazzucato, Brittany Erickson