Six Michigan State University College of Natural Science women scientists are the recipients of National Science Foundation Early CAREER Faculty Awards.
The occasion, which marks the first time that six NSF Early CAREER Awards have been given to a single college — and to six women faculty members in the same year— is unprecedented at MSU. The five-year (2018-23) grants collectively total more than $3.6 million.
The CAREER Award is one of NSF’s most prestigious awards in support of early career faculty members who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research.
"NSF CAREER awards are a strong confirmation of the high caliber of our junior faculty and a very positive indicator of their future career trajectory,” said Stephen Hsu, vice president for research and graduate studies at MSU. “These awards are extremely competitive, so to receive six in one college is extraordinary."
“NatSci is proud of the women faculty who received prestigious NSF CAREER awards this year,” said Cheryl Sisk, NatSci interim dean. “This national recognition of their talent is well-deserved and will enhance the research and educational experiences of many MSU students.”
The recipients are:
Laura Chomiuk, assistant professor of physics and astronomy, and director of the MSU Observatory, received $730,425 from NSF’s Division of Astronomical Sciences for research efforts aimed at understanding the conditions under which novae are shock-powered. As part of the grant, Chomiuk will also engage school-age students from rural backgrounds through Michigan 4-H and plans to lead programs at residential Exploration Days and start an Astronomy Club for Ingham and Eaton counties.
“I am thrilled to not only have my research on novae explosions supported, but to also be recognized for my ongoing education and public outreach efforts at the MSU Campus Observatory,” Chomiuk said. “I hope this grant will provide educational experiences, not only to students in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, but statewide to a diversity of ages, through collaboration with Michigan 4-H.”
Chomiuk, who grew up in Metro Detroit, received her Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Honors include the award of a Jansky Fellowship of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. She returned to Michigan in 2013 to join the faculty in MSU’s Department of Physics and Astronomy and has enjoyed teaching and mentoring students by studying explosions of novae and supernovae.
Susannah Dorfman, assistant professor of experimental mineralogy in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, received $599,948 from NSF’s Division of Earth Sciences for a project that will integrate research pertaining to the role of the mantle in Earth’s deep carbon cycle. She plans to recruit diverse students to the geoscience lab and improve the teaching of spatial reasoning, a critical skill for Earth scientists.
“The CAREER award is a huge boost to my research program at MSU, and I’m excited to carry forward a technically challenging project that lets me work with one foot in geophysics and the other in geochemistry,” Dorfman said. “Our experiments will improve our understanding of the physical and chemical behavior of carbon at extreme conditions in Earth’s deep interior. The project furthers a major goal of the Deep Carbon Observatory, which provided seed funding for my group and is a fantastic scientific community.”
Before coming to MSU in 2015, Dorfman was a postdoctoral scientist in the Institute of Condensed Matter Physics at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland. She received her Ph.D. in geosciences from Princeton University in 2012.
Kristen Hendricks, assistant professor of mathematics, received $425,000 from NSF’s Division of Mathematical Sciences to support her work in equivariant Floer theory and low-dimensional topology, the mathematical study of shape. The grant will also support undergraduate researchers and local outreach programs intended to enhance the accessibility of mathematics at early stages.
“This grant will be a tremendous boon both to my ability to carry out my research and to support and help educate early researchers and younger students in my home state,” Hendricks said. “Naturally, I am delighted and will endeavor to justify the NSF’s good opinion.”
A Michigan native, Hendricks received her Ph.D. in mathematics from Columbia University in 2013, followed by postdoctoral work at UCLA. She joined MSU in 2016.
N. Cecilia Martinez-Gomez, assistant professor of microbiology and molecular genetics, received $562,102 from NSF’s Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences for her project that aims to describe the extent to which rare earth elements drive novel cellular functions. Results from this research will lead to technological improvements of biological platforms that already serve for production of biofuels and bioplastics and will expand efforts into developing biomining and biostimulants platforms, transforming both the energy and agricultural industries. The project will also allow for training of both graduate and undergraduate students, as well as postdocs.
“The day they called to let me know about the award, I was so thrilled; it was actually on my birthday!” Martinez-Gomez said. “It validated that this emergent area is as intriguing and exciting for other researchers as it is for me. For my team, it has been a boost in our motivation to achieve our goals. Every day in the lab we learn something new about these metals, both regarding the basic research aspect of it and when developing new technologies.”
Before coming to MSU in 2015, Martinez-Gomez received her Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2009 under the mentorship of Diana Downs. She also completed postdoc work at the University of Washington in the Department of Chemical Engineering mentored by Mary Lidstrom.
Kristin Parent, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, received $794,331 from NSF’s Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences for research that focuses on underlying mechanisms that control gene transfer from transducing bacteriophages. The goal of the project is to fully characterize the mechanism(s) of phage-mediated evolution within complex microbial networks and ultimately examine these networks in an environment that mimics the human gut.
“Microbes rarely exist in nature as purely isolated organisms. Instead, they interact with multiple other partners in the broader context of a microbiome,” Parent said. “Since bacteriophages, or viruses that infect bacteria, play essential roles in shaping bacterial evolution, it is imperative that we understand the impact of these viruses within the context of complex microbial communities.
“I am delighted that we have support from NSF to lead this exciting research program, and I am honored to work with students in middle and high school as part of this project. They love being a part of the research, and I am happy to be able to contribute toward their education.”
Parent’s lab also conducts pioneering research at MSU to advance the use of electron cryo-microscopy and three-dimensional image reconstruction methods. Her lab includes undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and visiting researchers.
Parent received her Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Connecticut in 2007 and subsequently served as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, San Diego, before joining MSU in 2013. She has more than 30 published research papers, including the most recent 2018 cover story in the Journal of Virology, featuring work on isolating bacteriophages from MSU’s campus.
Michaela TerAvest, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, received $519,357 from NSF’s Division of Engineering to support her project to develop a microbial electrosynthesis platform — a technology that combines renewable electricity storage with carbon capture using bacteria that eat electricity. TerAvest’s project takes a new approach in this field by utilizing genetically modified bacteria, where others have used natural strains.
“This award is very exciting for me for several reasons,” TerAvest said. “It is my first independent research grant; it’s on a project that I have been curious about since graduate school but couldn't pursue before; and I really believe the results will be impactful in the renewable energy industry.”
TerAvest received her Ph.D. in biological and environmental engineering from Cornell University in 2014, where she studied electron transfer mechanisms of Shewanella oneidensis in microbial electrochemical systems with Lars Angenent. She completed postdoctoral work on the synthetic biology of extracellular electron transfer with Caroline Ajo-Franklin at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and Adam Arkin at the University of California, Berkeley.