By Mark Dwortzan
Assistant professors Douglas Densmore (ECE, BME), Ramesh Jasti (Chemistry, MSE) and Bobak Nazer (ECE, SE) have each received the National Science Foundation’s prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award in recognition of their outstanding research and teaching capabilities. Collectively, they will receive nearly $2 million over the next five years to pursue high-impact projects that combine research and educational objectives.
Densmore’s CAREER award will advance a synthetic biology platform designed to dramatically reduce the time, costs and complexities associated with assembling DNA to create novel living systems. Such systems could be used to address renewable energy, medical, environmental remediation and other critical societal challenges. The platform Densmore envisions will assemble DNA with automated, optimized and efficient open-source software and liquid handling operations suitable for a wide range of applications.
“This award will allow my research group to push the boundaries of what is possible with DNA assembly automation,” he said. “Our research will not only advance the science and engineering required to perform this work but also introduce a paradigm shift where researchers no longer focus on the tedium of laboratory work but rather on the intellectual exercise of designing new biological systems.”
The award will also help Densmore to continue introducing synthetic biology and DNA assembly techniques to underrepresented students and other researchers ranging from elementary school students to postdoctoral fellows, including College of Engineering students who participate in the annual International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) software division competition.
Supported by his CAREER award, Jasti aims to develop new ways to synthesize well-defined, uniform structures from which carbon nanotubes—extremely thin, hollow cylinders composed of carbon atoms—could be constructed. Because of their unique properties, carbon nanotubes may ultimately be used to enable diverse applications including new solar energy materials, components for faster electronics and single-molecule biosensors.
“Carbon nanotubes have enormous potential for applications in electronics, energy and biotechnology,” said Jasti. “In order to harness the power of these nanomaterials, we need to be able to find a way to synthesize them in a homogeneous manner. My research group is inventing new methods to do just that.”
Jasti’s work may lead to new classes of nanotechnologies that could spawn novel devices and systems. He’ll use the NSF funding not only to further his research, but also to introduce high school students to the interdisciplinary nature of nanoscience through a series of workshops.
Nazer plans to use his CAREER award to explore a novel approach to wireless communication that could lead to substantially higher data rates. The conventional wisdom is that interference between users is a source of noise to be avoided at all costs. For instance, modern wireless systems operate by assigning users to dedicated time or frequency slots. However, interfering signals are not simply noise: they encode data sent by other users and often have considerable structure. Nazer has discovered a technique that can harness the inherent algebraic structure of interference; properly applied, it may eventually enable many users to simultaneously occupy the same channel while operating at extremely high data rates.
“Although wireless connectivity is now available almost everywhere, we still only employ wireless communication for the last hop in a network, owing in large part to the interference bottleneck,” said Nazer. “By designing protocols that can harness the structure of interference, we hope to create networks that can effortlessly scale to handle more users while maintaining high throughputs.”
Nazer’s project also incorporates interactive presentations on cellular communication for high school students, tutorials, workshops and other outreach efforts.
To date, 34 College of Engineering faculty members have received NSF CAREER awards during their service to the College.