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Peter Paul Fellowships Give Junior Faculty Research Support

Three professors awarded $40,000 annually for three years

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The brain is still in many ways like deep space: it’s easy to look at it, but very hard to look into, and see what is really going on. To get a better look inside, we need tools, like pulses of light that silence brain cell activity for milliseconds, long enough to get a bead on the action of superfast neural pathways, a technology that Xue Han, a College of Engineering assistant professor, helped pioneer. Now, thanks to the Peter Paul Career Development Professor Program, Han will have the resources to develop more and better tools.

Along with Colin Fisher, a School of Management assistant professor of organizational behavior, and Johannes Schmieder, a College of Arts and Sciences assistant professor of economics, Han has been named one of this year’s Peter Paul Professors. The award gives junior faculty members $40,000 for three years to support their research.

The awards are named for Peter Paul (GSM’71), a BU trustee and president of the mortgage banking company Paul Financial, LLC, who gave the University $1.5 million in 2006 to fund 10 professorships over five years, and has since increased his overall commitment to the program to $2.5 million. Deans and department heads nominate candidates, and President Robert A. Brown and Provost Jean Morrison select the awardees.

“They enable us to accelerate the progress that these exceptional scholars and researchers can make on their academic career,” says Morrison. “They are given to the most promising and talented scholars and researchers.”

The awards, which go to professors with no more than two years teaching experience and no prior professorship, are meant to boost very junior faculty at a time in their academic careers when they may struggle to find funding for their research.

“It’s a real vote of confidence for them,” Morrison says. “It demonstrates that we have confidence in their potential and are putting the resources behind that.”

The award came as a surprise to Fisher, who was outside writing a book chapter on team leadership when he got an email from the Provost’s Office giving him the news.

“I couldn’t work on my chapter for a while,” he says. “I called my dad, who’s also an academic and would understand what this meant.”

The award is especially timely for Fisher who is just launching a lab study on how groups make decisions. The award will enable him to hire an assistant to help with the study’s time-consuming administration. That done, he can focus on publishing his findings.

“The best use of my time is to write journal articles and to disseminate the info I’ve already collected,” he says.

Johannes Schmieder will also be able to hire a research assistant, for his study of the costs and benefits of longer and more generous unemployment benefits during a recession. When Schmieder was nominated for the award, he was told not to get his hopes up, because no one in the economics department had ever won the award.

Now someone has. “I was very surprised,” he says. “It’s a tremendous help.”

For Han, the award provides the means to study something that would otherwise be very hard to find funding for. Han, who leads the Neuroengineering Lab, works on the light pulse technologies that make it possible to study how the brain’s ultra-fast neural pathways work. Still, she says, more and better tools are needed.

“We haven’t really thought of the brain at the neural circuitry level, but on the molecular level,” says Han, who also won a 2011 Sloan Research Fellowship. “How can we approach the brain at a new level? That question may lead to some new ideas on how to treat the brain. That’s why we need new technologies.”

Amy Sutherland can be reached at alks@bu.edu.

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