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The National Science Foundation has named nine promising University of Wisconsin-Madison engineering faculty members recipients of its prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) awards.

These awards support early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education, as well as leaders within their institutions. In addition to research activities, CAREER awards also support outreach initiatives that help communicate the research in a broader context and to a larger audience.

Following is an overview of what the college CAREER recipients have planned in those two areas.

Mikhail Kats
Assistant Professor
Electrical and Computer Engineering

Research: Thermal emission (thermal radiation) is the phenomenon responsible for most of the light in the universe, including light from the sun and stars, the glow of embers in a fire, and the invisible infrared light from people and vehicles that enables thermal imaging. Kats will explore ways to use and engineer thermal emission for applications such as passively regulating temperatures without using external power or feedback loops, coatings that camouflage objects from infrared cameras, and improved temperature measurements at a distance. Read more…

Outreach: There are several outreach components in Kats’ proposal. One is the development of a podcast focused on topics in applied physics, technology and the practice of science.

Jason Kawasaki
Assistant Professor
Materials Science and Engineering

Research: Kawasaki is developing new ways to grow crystalline films of magnetic materials (Heusler compounds) with atomic-level precision, using atomically thin barrier materials such as graphene. He is also studying how to control the flow of electrical charge, magnetic spin, and the crystalline order across solid interfaces. Read more…

Outreach: Kawasaki is developing an after-school science program with SciEncounters and the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County, entitled “Atoms to iPhone.”

Laurent Lessard
Assistant Professor
Electrical and Computer Engineering

Research: Currently, algorithm design is more of an art than a science. Particular algorithms are often used simply because they appear to work. This can be problematic in cases where the algorithms make critical decisions. Lessard’s project will develop new theory and methods for designing algorithms so that performance and safety are ensured. The ultimate goal is to design the algorithms of the future in the same way that we design airplanes, skyscrapers, and computer hardware—in a way that performance, safety and reliability can be controlled. Read more…

Outreach: Lessard will expand the scope of his successful recreational mathematics blog “Book Proofs” to topics that include elements of his research in control theory and optimization as well as guest contributions from his colleagues. Lessard is also working with the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery (WID) at UW-Madison to bring some of the blog to life in the form of interactive exhibits. These will be integrated into “Saturday Science,” which is a free monthly program for families and learners of all ages that takes place in at WID.

Jing (Jane) Li
Assistant Professor, Dugald C. Jackson Faculty Scholar
Electrical and Computer Engineering

Research: Li’s research aims to significantly accelerate the processing for big data applications, including large online social networks like Facebook, web search sites like Google, and personalized medicine. Read more…

Outreach: Li will extend her research framework into an educational platform, providing a user-friendly framework for a laboratory-based curriculum and will serve the educational objectives for K-12 students, undergraduate and graduate students.

Po-Ling Loh
Assistant Professor
Electrical and Computer Engineering

Research: Many modern-day datasets contain sources of contamination, such as missing values, clerical errors or effects of adversarial interventions. This is particularly problematic for large-scale data, where it may be impossible to manually inspect all the data and make appropriate corrections before running data analysis tools. Loh is developing new statistical methods for handling such datasets that are robust to contaminations in the data. Importantly, the methods must be efficient to implement, even for large-scale data, and backed by mathematical theory. Read more…

Outreach: Loh will be teaching a new class on robust data analysis to graduate students at UW-Madison this fall. She also plans to disseminate her research findings in less formal settings, by giving talks on data science and statistics at high school math circles in Wisconsin and other public speaking engagements via the UW-Madison Speakers Bureau.

Jacob Notbohm
Assistant Professor
Engineering Physics

Research: Materials made of random networks of microscopic fibers have applications in human health and engineering. In both applications, it is crucial to understand the relationship between structural properties, like fiber size and number, and mechanical properties, like stiffness and strength. Notbohm’s research will establish these crucial relationships, which will advance treatments to disease and enable engineering applications for fibrous materials. Read more… 

Outreach: Notbohm plans to enable students to apply scientific principles across disciplinary boundaries, specifically to apply mechanics to the traditionally separate field of biology. Notbohm will create case studies for undergraduate courses and a new course module for grad students. He will also work with high school biology teachers and introduce them to principles of physics so they can create hands-on activities to use in their classrooms and to share with other educators.

Zongfu Yu
Dugald C. Jackson Assistant Professor
Electrical and Computer Engineering

Research: Yu’s award will fund his development of novel light sensors used in cameras that assist machine vision. The sensors exploit unique interactions between light and nanostructures. Light-sensing pixels will be designed using full wave simulation and fabricated with photo-lithography. The project will also develop algorithms to be used together with the new light sensors to perform efficient and advanced vision tasks for machines. Read more… 

Outreach: Yu’s project results will be incorporated into curriculum development, and he will develop easy-to-use electromagnetic simulation software for education purposes.

Daniel Wright
Assistant Professor
Civil and Environmental Engineering

Research: Floods are the most common type of natural disaster and arise from complex interactions between rainfall and “on-the-ground” conditions. Floods have long been studied from two standpoints: statistics and physics. The former, termed “flood frequency analysis,” is central to flood risk management, but transformations in the latter due to changes in land use, urbanization, and climate imply that existing data and statistics may no longer be valid. Wright’s research presents a hybrid approach that uses recent advances in meteorological observations, data processing approaches, models, and theory to better understand floods in a changing world. The first objective focuses on regional rainfall structure and how it connects to rainfall and flood frequencies and trends. The second objective focuses on the physical drivers of flood frequency including rainfall, soil moisture and their interactions. Read more… 

Outreach: Wright’s work will develop several initiatives that will reach K-12 students, undergraduates, graduate students and instructors using a combination of physical-virtual active learning tools, interactive web-based “apps” and lesson modules to reinforce learning and assess outcomes.

Victor Zavala
Richard H. Soit Assistant Professor
Chemical and Biological Engineering

Research: Zavala will study the impact of modular technologies on diverse systems such as the national power grid and agricultural supply chains. He aims to develop optimization frameworks to understand the impacts of modularity on the performance and resilience of complex systems. Read more…

Outreach: In collaboration with Chemical and Biological Engineering Professor Thatcher Root, Zavala will reengineer the semester-long undergraduate introductory statistics course into a series of three modules. By modularizing the class, Zavala hopes to create better coordination between the abstract statistical concepts being taught and their applications in students’ other engineering coursework.