Three Pitt Researchers Land CAREER Awards From National Science Foundation to Enhance Tools in Chemistry, Engineering, and Biology

Issue Date: 
February 26, 2007

Awards help fund career development of junior faculty combining research and education

Three Pitt faculty members recently received prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) awards from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that fund their emerging careers as teachers and researchers. The awards encourage using the classroom to include women and underrepresented minorities in a particular field.

Recipients are Shigeru Amemiya, assistant professor of bioanalytical chemistry and electrochemistry in Pitt’s School of Arts and Sciences; Kevin P. Chen, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and the Paul E. Lego faculty fellow in Pitt’s School of Engineering; and Daniel Zuckerman, assistant professor of computational biology in Pitt’s School of Medicine.

Amemiya received a five-year, approximately $560,000 grant to support his development of novel chemical sensors that would drastically improve the ability to monitor such hard-to-detect biological, environmental, and medical substances as the anticoagulant heparin. Amemiya has published five papers about using the sensors to detect heparin and hopes to expand the sensors’ use to other chemical substances.

Amemiya’s grant also will fund two Pitt graduate students as full-time research assistants and one or two undergraduate students as summer research assistants. Furthermore, as his research progresses, Amemiya will incorporate his findings into his teaching curriculum to bridge classroom and laboratory learning.

Chen’s work involves the latest generation of optic fibers known as microstructured fibers that feature a layout of holes positioned around a central core to guide light through the fiber. Unlike previous optic fibers, microstructured fibers notably concentrate light. The NSF awarded Chen a $400,000, five-year grant to enhance the sensitivity, response, and power transfer capabilities of these fibers, potentially expanding their practical use. He plans to achieve this by controlling the shape, geometry, and composition of the central core and the air holes, as well as the material from which the fiber itself is made.

Along with his research, Chen proposed a general training course in optical engineering for all engineering students as well as extracurricular undergraduate workshops in robotics. Such courses will expand the knowledge of engineering students and reach out to people underrepresented in engineering, by providing an open and accessible forum.

Zuckerman received a five-year, approximately $825,000 grant for the development and use of novel computational approaches for studying the dynamics of large biological molecules such as proteins. Zuckerman and his coworkers are developing mathematical ”recipes,” or algorithms, and software for understanding the complex behavior of proteins—especially large changes in their three-dimensional structure, which could affect their interaction with other molecules. The group uses statistical approaches to develop rigorous, but relatively fast methods for calculating the range of molecular motions of proteins.

Zuckerman’s grant also will support the continued development of an introductory textbook for biophysics and computational biology students, aimed at beginning graduate students or advanced undergraduates from a wide variety of backgrounds. The text will focus on the molecular phenomena pertinent to biophysics, avoiding the more advanced discussions found in many graduate statistical mechanics texts. The new text also will rely primarily on basic probability concepts and connections to common experiments, rather than the more abstract thermodynamic descriptions, as has been traditional.