Four ENG Faculty Win NSF CAREER Awards


By Mark Dwortzan

Assistant professors Lorena Barba (ME), Ayse Coskun (ECE), Ajay Joshi (ECE) and Michael L. Smith (BME) have each received the National Science Foundation’s prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award in recognition of their outstanding research and teaching capabilities.

The five-year, $400,000 – $550,000 award funds high-impact projects that effectively combine research and educational objectives. The NSF recognized Barba, Coskun and Joshi for three independent efforts to stretch the limits of computing, and Smith for innovative research on intercellular communication.

High-Performance Computing Research Nets Three Awards

“Receiving the CAREER award will give my research program considerable momentum at a time when computational science is rising in the national agenda,” said Barba, who seeks to upgrade a class of scientific computing algorithms to vastly improve their performance on “manycore” systems, in which multiple computer processors operate in parallel. Such high-speed algorithms could advance solutions to critical problems in computational fluid dynamics and computational biology, from understanding climate change to simulating the proteins that are the building blocks of life.

“With rapid changes in computer hardware, the algorithms and software used in science need to be reinvented; they need to be parallel like never before,” she observed. “But first, we have to adapt our algorithms to work in massively parallel hardware and learn to compute at extreme scales—one quintillion calculations per second. Our group now has the support of the NSF to serve this high-priority national goal.”

Meanwhile, both Coskun and Joshi will use their CAREER awards to address rising performance and power demands on computer hardware. The need is critical as today’s inefficient technology imposes steep operational and cooling costs on data centers and high performance computing (HPC) clusters, and appears unlikely to meet the high performance demands of next-generation embedded systems.

Coskun’s goal is to demonstrate that 3D stacked systems, in which multiple chips are manufactured and vertically connected, will provide major efficiency improvements to the nation’s computing infrastructure, leading to substantial cost and carbon footprint reductions.

“Our objective is to create the catalyst techniques required to make 3D systems effective agents for attaining low-power, high-throughput computing in both embedded systems and HPC/data centers.”

Joshi will apply his award to boost the energy efficiency of silicon-photonic manycore systems, which consist of dozens of independent, silicon-based processors operating in parallel and communicating with system memory via photonic links.

“This will pave the way for rapid adoption of silicon-photonic networks for processor-memory communication, which will significantly improve the energy efficiency—and, in turn, reduce the operational cost and carbon footprint of—manycore systems widely used today in server farms and data centers,” Joshi explained.

Michael L. Smith (BME)
Michael L. Smith (BME)

Smith Recognized for Intercellular Communication Studies

Smith intends to use his CAREER award to improve our understanding of how cells communicate. While it’s well known that cells communicate with one another by secreting signaling molecules that can control their behavior, cells may also communicate via other cues. To investigate these cues, Smith and members of his lab plan to pull on fibers of the extracellular matrix, a composite glue that surrounds cells and provides mechanical resiliency to tissues.

“No one has conclusively demonstrated that tugging on these structures permits cell-to-cell communication,” said Smith. “Elucidating this novel mechanism would have a transformative impact on a number of fields since cell-to-cell communication is a basic phenomenon critical to numerous aspects of cell biology and physiological processes from tissue development to wound repair.”

New Educational Initiatives

The NSF CAREER award funding will also enable Barba, Coskun, Joshi and Smith to redouble their efforts to provide innovative educational experiences to College of Engineering students and expose K-12 students to the excitement of engineering. Key initiatives they have planned include the development of leading-edge educational technologies; advanced studies institutes that promote international, interdisciplinary collaboration; new courses; new interactive, hands-on design challenges; and new undergraduate research opportunities.

To date, 31 College of Engineering faculty members have received NSF CAREER awards during their service to the College.