Sloan Research Fellows Named

Issue Date: 
March 3, 2014

GettingMarlene Cohen started can be the hardest part. Even the brightest young researchers can face difficulty in acquiring initial funding and making a name for themselves. But three early-career University of Pittsburgh investigators from the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences recently received a boost from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in the form of a 2014 Sloan Research Fellowship, a two-year award that carries a $50,000 research stipend.

The Sloan Fellowships were awarded to Marlene Cohen, assistant professor of neuroscience; Sergey Frolov, assistant professor of physics and astronomy; and Michael Neilan, assistant professor of mathematics.

The fellowships are often a precursor to bigger things. Since the program began in 1955, 42 Sloan Fellows have won a Nobel Prize, 16 have earned the Fields Medal in mathematics, and 63 have netted the National Medal of Science.

With three such fellowships, Pitt ties this year for first in its number of Sloan Fellows among all Pennsylvania institutions of higher learning.

CohenSergey Frolov studies how the brain encodes visual information and uses that information to make behavioral decisions. More specifically, she researches how the brain’s neural activity changes when a person pays attention to a particular location or visual feature.

Frolov is exploring the world of the Majorana fermion, a long-elusive subatomic particle that he and a team in the Netherlands were the first to glimpse evidence of in a lab. The prestigious journal Science published the Frolov team’s paper in 2012 and also honored it as the journal’s best article of the year. Frolov seeks to use the Majorana fermion to build a new and better class of quantum computer.

Mathematician Neilan works to provide mathematical answers related to processes and phenomena in the physical sciences—solutions that are modeled by partial differential equations that show physical relationships, such as airflow around the wing of an aircraft. In most applications, these complex problems can only be solved approximately by using a numerical algorithm on a computer. Neilan’s research seeks numerical solutions to these equations and also addresses questions such as “how close is the computed result to the true (and unknown) solution?” and “How can one construct a numerical method that faithfully preserves the physics at the discrete level?”

TheMichael Neilan Sloan Foundation awards fellowships in eight scientific and technical fields—chemistry, computer science, economics, mathematics, evolutionary and computational molecular biology, neuroscience, ocean sciences, and physics. Candidates are nominated by their fellow scientists, and winning fellows are selected by an independent panel of senior scholars, based upon a candidate’s independent research accomplishments, creativity, and potential to become a leader in his or her field.

Cohen was described by her department chair, Alan Sved, as “an independent, creative, and talented scientist who is emerging as one of the true leaders in her field.”

In his letter nominating Frolov, Pitt Department of Physics and Astronomy Chairman David Turnshek wrote, “Our intention was to recruit an extraordinary experimental physicist who was working on significant problems in nanoscience and fundamental physics. Our vision has been met with his hire.”

Neilan’s nominator, Department of Mathematics Chair Ivan Yotov, called Neilan “a rising star in numerical analysis and computational mathematics … he is very creative and extremely strong technically.”