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Over $2.6 million awarded for chemical, medical, computational research

Researchers from IU Bloomington and IUPUI have been named recipients of highly competitive NSF CAREER awards

Feb 15, 2023

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was updated on March 2, 2023, to add a fourth award recipient.

Four faculty at Indiana University Bloomington and IUPUI will receive a total of over $2.6 million from the National Science Foundation to advance research on high-performance computing, cellular mechanics and nanomaterials as recipients of NSF Faculty Early Career Development Awards.

Also known as CAREER Awards, these grants are regarded as one the most prestigious awards for early career faculty. The recipients are Sébastien Laulhé and Jing Liu at the School of Science at IUPUI; Dingwen Tao at the IU Luddy School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering at IU Bloomington; and Xingchen Ye in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Chemistry at IU Bloomington.

An assistant professor of chemistry at IUPUI, Laulhé was awarded $770,000 to advance research on the chemical reactions that do not require the use of rare or toxic metals as catalysts.

Sébastien Laulhé

An assistant professor of chemistry at IUPUI, Laulhé was awarded $770,000 to advance research on the chemical reactions that do not require the use of rare or toxic metals as catalysts. Sébastien Laulhé. Photo courtesy the School of Science at IUPUI Sébastien Laulhé. Photo courtesy the School of Science at IUPUI

Metal catalysts, such as palladium, are currently required to create many important products, such as life-saving pharmaceuticals, agricultural chemicals and other consumer goods. However, Laulhé said, alternate processes are needed due to the environmental impact of these substances, as well as their financial costs, which have increased significantly in recent years due to high demand and global conflicts.

The new grant will enable his lab to build upon previous research that uses visible light — such as the light from a blue LED lamp — to activate molecules in a similar fashion as metal catalysts through the use of special electron-donor-acceptor complexes, which is much less environmentally harmful or costly.

In addition, Laulhé said, a portion of the grant will support the development of “universally accessible materials” to improve instructors’ ability to provide education in organic chemistry to students with visual impairments and blindness. He also said that undergraduate students will get the opportunity to contribute to research.

Jing Liu

An assistant professor of physics at IUPUI, Liu was awarded $749,804 to study how the motion of chromatin in human cells responds to external mechanical stimuli. Chromatin is the mixture of DNA and proteins that form the chromosomes in the cells of humans and other organisms.

Jing Liu. Photo courtesy of the School of Science at IUPUI Jing Liu. Photo courtesy of the School of Science at IUPUI

Liu’s research has found evidence that chromatin motion may have a role in modulating the interaction of DNA in the cell, affecting important cell functions such as DNA replication, DNA repair and gene expression. The new grant will leverage this existing strength in chromatin biophysics to explore the question, “Can a cell sense an external force and communicate that to the DNA?,” Liu said. Understanding how mechanics regulate chromatin motion could help power the engineering of living systems, as well as contribute to new strategies to treat disease, including cancer, he added.

In addition, Liu said, support from the award will help Indianapolis high school students learn about the science occurring in his lab through a partnership with the Indianapolis branch the American Chemical Society’s Project SEED. This summer internship program hosts a free annual summer camp targeted to economically disadvantaged students.

Dingwen Tao

An associate professor of intelligent systems engineering at IU Bloomington, Tao was awarded $467,770 to improve the efficacy and useability of data compression algorithms used in high-performance computing systems. These systems are used in many fields of science, including astronomy, climatology, seismology and machine learning.

Dingwen Tao. Photo courtesy IU Luddy School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering Dingwen Tao. Photo courtesy IU Luddy School of Informatics, Computing and EngineeringAs part of the project, Tao is collaborating with researchers at IU’s Pervasive Technology Institute and Cyberinfrastructure Integration Research Center to learn whether data compression tools developed by his lab can be used to enhance their existing work on ultra-fast data transfer technology. Tao’s technology is also used by multiple national laboratories, including Argonne National Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, as well as university partners across the U.S. His lab makes extensive use of IU’s supercomputer, Big Red 200.

Undergraduate students will also get the opportunity to contribute to this work, said Tao, who is recruiting students for his lab in collaboration with Luddy’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities in Computing program and the student component of the Pervasive Technology Institute’s workforce development initiative.

Xingchen Ye

An assistant professor of chemistry at IU Bloomington, Ye was awarded $700,000 to explore new ways to produce nanoscale metal alloys, which possess unique chemical and physical properties that could advance clean energy, photonics, and solar panel and drug development technology.

Xingchen Ye. Photo courtesy of the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Chemistry Xingchen Ye. Photo courtesy of the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences' Department of ChemistryThese alloys are made up of more sustainable and affordable elements than the precious metals currently used in science and industry. The work, which requires imaging and analyzing nanomaterials with atomic precision, will benefit from IU’s new JEOL NeoARM electron microscope, which is pending installation at the IU Bloomington Electron Microscopy Center. Ye is a founding member of the NSF Center for Single-Entity Nanochemistry and Nanocrystal Design, led by IU Professor Sara Skrabalak, which was established at IU in the fall.

In addition, Ye said the grant will support efforts to adapt his lab’s work for high school and undergraduate students, including an eight-week undergraduate summer program called the Ye group Summer Synthesis, or YeSS. It will also support the development of a classroom module on “modern aspects of colloidal chemistry and microscopy imaging” for eighth-graders in Indiana.

NSF Faculty Early Career Development Awards are granted to faculty with the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in their departments or organizations. The awards are intended to support activities that build a foundation for a lifetime in academics.

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