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March 15, 2007 • Volume 15 Number 13

Five BC Faculty Net NSF Honors

By Greg Frost
Staff Writer

Five junior Boston College faculty are receiving prestigious early-career awards from the National Science Foundation this year, a milestone that puts Boston College among the ranks of top-rated national research institutes.

The five - Asst. Prof. Steve Bruner (Chemistry), Asst. Prof. Vidya Madhavan (Physics) Asst. Prof. David Martin (Computer Science) Asst. Prof. Noah Snyder (Geology and Geophysics) and Clare Booth Luce Assistant Professor of Computer Science Stella Yu - have earned NSF's Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) awards, which carry substantial grants designed to recognize and support promising young teacher-scholars.

Vice Provost for Research Kevin Bedell noted that until this year, BC faculty had received a total of five CAREER awards over the previous 12 years - and never more than two in a given year. Previous winners include Prof. Marc Snapper (Chemistry) and Assoc. Prof. Gail Kineke (Geology and Geophysics).

"This is a sign of great faculty appointments that foretells of even greater things to come. It's a significant achievement both for the individual professors and for BC, as it puts us in the company of major national research institutions like Stanford, MIT and Princeton," Bedell said.

"It's truly a reflection of the quality of our faculty and the increased emphasis we as an institution are placing on research and education."

Together, the five professors are garnering $2.5 million in NSF CAREER funding, to be distributed over the next five years.

*Asst. Prof. Steve Bruner (Chemistry) will receive $575,000 for his study of the intricate way in which plants and microorganisms produce molecules used in therapeutic drugs. Bruner's research program uses an interdisciplinary approach, including structural biology and synthetic organic chemistry, to study the protein machines responsible for the biosynthesis of natural products. A detailed understanding of these systems at the molecular level will enable the rational engineering of these systems and will facilitate the development of more effective and/or novel medicines.

*Asst. Prof. Vidya Madhavan (Physics) will receive $500,000 for her study of "spin," a property that electrons exhibit in addition to their charge. Spin is the microscopic, quantum mechanical analog of a classical, macroscopic magnet. It's a property scientists hope will lead to a new generation of semiconductor-based electronic devices - spintronics - that use both the charge and spin of the electron. Spintronic devices are expected to carry information on both the charge and spin channels, making them faster and requiring less current.

*Asst. Prof. David Martin (Computer Science) will receive $500,000 over five years for his work on bringing "visual intelligence" to computers by building software that can view an image and react intelligently to its content. For that to happen, machines need to understand what they are looking at - and that is no easy task given the conscious and unconscious processes that let human beings quickly and easily process visual information. Specifically, Martin is working on finding a universal "mid-level" representation of visual information that is between the low-level dots (or pixels) of an image and the high-level conscious experience that most human beings have.

*Asst. Prof. Noah Snyder (Geology and Geophysics) will receive around $430,000 - the exact amount will be finalized this spring - to investigate the history and physical processes of several rivers in northern Maine that are host to the last remaining populations of wild Atlantic salmon in the United States. Snyder hopes to understand how ongoing and future changes (such as reforestation, stream restoration, fish reintroduction, and dam removal) will affect channel shape and habitat. Student research teams will conduct research in the field, and Martin plans to share results and recommendations with government land-management officials and watershed restoration non-profitgroups.

*Clare Booth Luce Assistant Professor in Computer Science Stella Yu will receive $500,000 for her interdisciplinary work in art and vision. In studying how computers might be instructed to interpret three-dimensional images, Yu will examine the ways artists have organized pigments on two-dimensional canvas to evoke the sense of a three-dimensional scene for viewers. She hopes that studying these artistic techniques will lend insights into the computation of recovering scene layout from pixels.

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