Bird, Khalil Net NSF CAREER Awards
By Mark Dwortzan
Assistant professors James C. Bird (ME, MSE) and Ahmad (“Mo”) Khalil (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.Collectively, they will receive more than $1.1 million over the next five years to pursue high-impact projects that combine research and educational objectives.
Bird intends to apply his CAREER award to explore how submicron aerosol droplets are formed from small bursting bubbles. Using direct, high-speed observations, numerical simulations and experimental models, he will seek out the primary mechanism behind this phenomenon. Because these droplets can persist in the atmosphere for weeks, pinpointing this mechanism is important in
engineering applications ranging from turbine corrosion to the dispersion of respiratory diseases.
Bird’s research may also improve models used to predict the progression of global climate change.
“On a global scale, a better understanding of aerosol production is necessary to reduce uncertainty in global climate models,” said Bird, “and will allow policy makers to better assess the risks and rewards of geoengineering mitigation strategies, such as deliberately injecting large amounts of sulfur particulates into the atmosphere in hopes of countering the warming effects of greenhouse gases.”
Drawing on this research, Bird plans to develop workshops for preschool and elementary school teachers in collaboration with Clinical Assistant Professor Marcia Edson (SED), and partner with the Boston Museum of Science to develop new science modules designed to increase scientific engagement between children and their parents.
Khalil will use his CAREER award to better understand the mechanisms underlying how organisms adapt to changing environments, a classic problem in evolutionary biology. The goal of his project will be to test a theory that prions—proteins that can switch between multiple conformational states or shapes—equip microbes with an enhanced capability to survive under fluctuating environmental conditions. Khalil will develop microfluidic systems to study prion behavior and synthetic biology methods to optimize their adaptive properties.
“This work will have broad implications for our basic understanding of evolution, development and cellular systems,” said Khalil. “The project will also shed light on the diverse roles of prions, unique elements that are emerging to be common in the microbial world, and have a transformative impact on synthetic biology, enabling new schemes for rationally engineering a wide array of cellular functions.”
Khalil also aims to inspire and train students to explore how engineering approaches can be applied to better understand how life works, through a “systems & synthetic biology boot camp” for high school students, related high school design challenges to be facilitated by College of Engineering Inspiration Ambassadors, undergraduate research opportunities through the International Genetically Engineered Machine (IGEM) synthetic biology competition, a new integrated course on quantitative systems biology, and other educational activities.
To date, 36 College of Engineering faculty members have received NSF CAREER awards during their service to the College.