Three more University of Oregon scientists have landed coveted awards from the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development Program, funding their research for the next five years.
Assistant professors Christopher Hendon and Amanda Cook of the Department of Chemistry have been awarded $571,960 and $770,000, respectively. Assistant professor of computer science Thien Huu Nguyen received $582,177. All three are part of the UO's College of Arts and Sciences.
“These awards are a recognition by the NSF of the extraordinary accomplishments and potential of these these early-career faculty in the natural sciences,” said Hal Sadofsky, dean of the natural sciences division of the College of Arts and Sciences. “Along with fellow awardee Thomas Giachetti of the Department of Earth Sciences, the recognition of these scientists by this highly competitive national award —and the promise of more great work to come — is a point of pride for the college.”
Cleaner, better, faster experiments
Cook’s project looks at developing new catalysts, which are chemical compounds or materials that make reactions speed up.
"Our approach to developing these catalysts is pretty unique, since we are extremely careful and precise in how they are synthesized,” she said.
That level of care will let the team understand how the chemical reactions proceed, leading to a better understanding of how to make the catalysts even more effective.
Cook became interested in chemistry as an undergraduate when she joined a research lab. Along with hands-on work, the problem-solving nature of chemistry drew her to research, she said.
“Every challenge in chemistry is like a puzzle,” Cook said.
Since catalysts significantly decrease the amount of energy consumed in experiments, Cook’s project will positively impact the environment.
"Because of this very potent ability of catalysts, they are essential to increase sustainability and lessen the environmental impact of the chemical industry,” she said.
Smarter AI event prediction and analysis
Nguyen became interested in computer science after running the computers at his parents’ local grocery store in Vietnam. Noting what was selling well with local festivals coming up, Nguyen would analyze which items to stock up on.
“I’d look at the patterns,” Nguyen said of his time on the simple computers.
Now, he and his research team are working to look at patterns on a much larger scale and in dozens of different languages. His team studies events mentioned in text — disease outbreaks, natural disasters, social conflicts, cyber-attacks — and develops state-of-the-art models, data sets and software to foster research and applications for multilingual natural language processing and artificial intelligence.
“The knowledge we talk about here is about the structures of events,” he said. “What are the common patterns?”
The team is working to transfer the knowledge gained from those patterns from popular languages and use it to make predictions or analyze events in other, less common languages. His project also will offer research internship programs for undergraduate students and extend outreach activities to conferences, local companies, other departments, and high school students and teachers.
“I appreciate the support from the university because they provide a lot of resources and facilities,” Nguyen said. Without the support from the NSF and the Department of Computer Science, he said, the project would not be as successful as it has been.
Sunlight as an ingredient in CO2 reduction
Hendon’s research proposes a better way to reduce the amount of harmful chemicals, such as carbon dioxide, that hurt the environment. He's looking at how to convert the abundant energy provided by the sun into chemical reactions that reduce CO2 and even use it to produce new, “recycled” fuels.
The potential for using abundant elements like carbon dioxide and sunlight to create new fuels could have huge positive effects on the environment, aligning it with the UO’s Environment Initiative. In addition to his long-term research, Hendon’s strong background in science education via his popular Coffee Laboratory on the UO campus also demonstrated to the NSF that he can make scientific research accessible and approachable.
“The measurable impact on a much shorter time frame is our training of people with nontraditional backgrounds,” Hendon said. “Those who did not go to college, those who maybe didn't complete high school, those who are trained in other vocational disciplines, and so forth. The idea is to teach them scientific methods and include them in science with a very low financial and academic barrier.”
—By Alyson Johnston and McKenzie Days, College of Arts and Sciences