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May 5, 2020

Three NatSci faculty members receive prestigious NSF Early CAREER Awards

Three Michigan State University College of Natural Science, or NatSci, researchers are recipients of 2020 National Science Foundation, or NSF, Early CAREER Faculty Awards.

The CAREER Award is one of NSF’s most prestigious honors. The grants support faculty members early in their profession who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through their outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of the two.

Collectively, the five-year (2020-2025) grants total more than $1.9 million and will support research done by three of MSU’s most talented scientists already making unprecedented strides in their respective fields. All three awardees will use a portion of their funds to leverage partnerships with MSU outreach programs, extending their nationally recognized science to students of all ages throughout Michigan.

Phil Duxbury, NatSci dean, offered his enthusiastic congratulations to the 2020 NatSci cohort of NSF Early CAREER Award winners.

“The achievements of this outstanding group of faculty will ensure that NatSci continues to excel and grow in STEM research and teaching performance,” Duxbury said. “These emerging leaders now have the opportunity to communicate the ways NatSci research excellence positively impacts the broader community in Michigan, the nation and throughout the world.”

The recipients are:

Min Chen

Min Chen, assistant professor, jointly appointed in the Department of Computational Mathematics, Science and Engineering and the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, received $560,000 from the NSF Division of Earth Sciences to conduct detailed seismic imaging of the North American Lithosphere. Her research is critical to understanding how the solid outer shell of the Earth changes and, consequently, affects the surface environment of our planet, for example, by controlling weather patterns and the movement of water.

“I was elated when I heard the good news of my receiving an NSF CAREER award,” Chen said. “It is such an honor to receive the NSF career award and to have the funding support to continue the research topic I am most interested in and excited about. With this project support, I hope, with my team, to improve the seismic image resolution of the lithosphere of the North American continent from the surface to its root, using large seismic datasets and advanced seismic imaging techniques aided by high performance computing.”

The NSF award will facilitate the project, “Modification of a Continent: Seismic Tomography and Imaging of the North American Lithosphere,” which will contribute to the understanding of how the North American continent is built, modified and destroyed. The five-year grant will provide essential funding for research personnel, computational resources and educational and outreach activities. The initiative will tightly integrate research, education and public outreach through an intensive summer camp and research-based educational plans for undergraduate students from underrepresented groups along with high school science teachers.

A computational seismologist, Chen received her bachelor’s degree in geophysics from the University of Science and Technology in Hefei, China and her Ph.D. in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology, or Caltech, in 2008. Chen accepted a postdoctoral associate at MIT from 2008 to 2011 and then moved to Rice University, where she worked as a postdoctoral research associate and research scientist from 2011 to 2017. Chen accepted a faculty position as an assistant professor at MSU in August 2017.

Tong Gao

Tong (Tony) Gao, assistant professor, jointly appointed in the Department of Computational Mathematics, Science and Engineering and the Department of Mechanical Engineering received $500,000 from the NSF Division of Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental and Transport Systems to explore a diverse array of problems in fluid mechanics, biophysics and materials through modeling and simulation, with a particular focus on soft matter physics. Gao has also been developing and integrating numerical methods to resolve multiscale physics from discrete particles to a continuous medium.

“I am very excited about receiving this five-year grant,” Gao said. “With the NSF funding, my project will build a computation framework for modeling, analysis and control of active fluids in complex microfluidic environments.”

The main research goal of Gao’s project, “Unveiling Stability, Rheology and Topology in Active Fluids,” is to learn how to manipulate active fluids by taking full advantage of their collective behaviors. The numerical studies, together with supporting experimental verifications, will lead to quantitative understandings of the linkages between dynamics across scales, and possibly to new engineering devices for transporting fluids and particles. Additionally, the project will provide undergraduate and graduate student training, create K-12 outreach opportunities and support the development of a Virtual Reality package that will help interpret research results and enrich classroom teaching.

Gao received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Science and Technology in Hefei, China and obtained his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the University of Pennsylvania. Following the completion of his Ph.D. in 2012, he took a postdoctoral position in the Applied Mathematics Laboratory of Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at the New York University before accepting a faculty position at MSU in 2015.

Jianrong Wang

Jianrong Wang, assistant professor, Department of Computational Mathematics, Science and Engineering received $862,012 from the NSF Division of Biological Infrastructure to develop computational infrastructure to understand a fundamental biology question: how thousands of molecules coordinate as complex systems in three-dimensional chromatin space.

“I’m really honored to receive a 2020 NSF Early CAREER Award,” Wang said. “The Wang lab is excited to develop a suite of machine learning algorithms that can integrate massive amounts of biological data and derive new knowledge of genomics and gene regulation at an unprecedented systems-level, which will have wide impacts in bioengineering, disease diagnostics, drug discovery and crop improvement. With this award, the Wang lab is enthusiastic for a bi-directional scientific journey across data science and biology.”

Wang’s project, “Delineate Context-Specific Gene Regulation in 3D Chromatin Space,” will not only allow Wang to stimulate novel machine learning algorithms but also improve insight into biological processes underlying diverse cells, tissues, organisms and environments. The algorithms and software generated by this project will be tools for both experimental and computational biologists to analyze large-scale multi-omics datasets, to derive interpretable predictions and to understand how complex gene regulatory systems are coordinated in 3D chromatin space.

The award will also allow Wang to create a series of interactive, educational and outreach modules to inspire and to engage students, especially underrepresented minority undergraduates, in biological and computational science research and novel virtual reality visualization through YouTube videos and Jupyter notebooks teaching materials that will be disseminated. Students will also have the opportunity to participate in the Women in Engineering program and the NSF REU program.

Wang received his bachelor’s degree in control science and engineering from Tsinghua University in Beijing and received his Ph.D. in bioinformatics from Georgia Institute of Technology in 2012. Following the completion of his Ph.D., he accepted positions as a postdoctoral associate at the Broad Institute of MIT from 2012 to 2016 and at Stanford in 2016. He joined the faculty at MSU as an assistant professor in 2017.

By: Val Osowski