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Four engineering faculty receive NSF CAREER awards

Four engineering faculty receive NSF CAREER awards

Magazine Section: Our People, Our Culture
College or School: CoE
Article Type: Article
Four Purdue Engineering faculty members have won the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious honor for outstanding young researchers in 2011.

The NSF issues about 400 faculty Early Career Development awards annually. In total, Purdue faculty received nine awards. Details about Engineering awardees and their research follow:

Alina Alexeenko, an assistant professor in the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics, will use her grant to learn how to apply the principles of “Knudsen forces,” or forces exerted by the movement of gas molecules, to the field of nanotechnology. Knowledge about the forces is needed to design high-precision thermal sensors, miniature motors and tiny machines called microelectromechanical systems, or MEMS, and to improve the accuracy of a widely used research tool called an atomic force microscope. Textbooks contain little information about the physics of Knudsen forces, although they can profoundly influence the motion of MEMS components in the presence of heating or cooling. The project includes curriculum development and work to create simulation tools and the world's largest and smallest Crookes radiometers, ornamental devices consisting of a sealed glass chamber housing metallic vanes that spin when exposed to sunlight. Knudsen forces cause the vanes to spin inside the devices, which are also called light mills.

Monica Cardella, an assistant professor in the School of Engineering Education, will use her grant to study how engineering students’ learning experiences in mathematics courses impact how they learn engineering design. Since design is closely tied to innovation, the impact on preparation of the technical workforce in the United States is potentially important. Cardella will use a “verbal protocol” method, which enables researchers to understand the thought process by having students verbalize how they are solving a problem. Understanding how students differ according to demographics could help increase the number of young people who choose to study engineering. About 90 students will be included in the study. The project aims to improve undergraduate engineering education, while at the same time focusing attention on mathematics education at the K-12 level. She plans to widely disseminate the project’s results, including outreach to K-12 educators through workshops. The project overlaps with NSF’s focus on preparing an engineering workforce with new capabilities and expertise and developing innovative learning systems.

Jong Hyun Choi, an assistant professor in the School of Mechanical Engineering, will use his grant to develop a new manufacturing technology that uses DNA to “self-assemble” tiny structures for solar cells. Because DNA is able to recognize and bind to different types of molecules, such a technology might be used to manufacture a wide range of devices for various applications, including photovoltaic and photoelectrochemical cells, which generate electricity from sunlight. The manufacturing technology could make possible the creation of nanostructures in a new type of solar cell that self-repairs like natural photosynthetic systems, increasing service lifetime and reducing cost. The research aims to uncover underlying principles in physics and chemistry involved in the technology. Theoretical modeling will be developed to guide experimental realization, generating optimal conditions for large-scale production. The manufactured nanostructures also will serve as a platform to study how electrons and energy flow in nanostructures. The project activities will provide opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students, work to increase participation of women and underrepresented minority students, and impact K-12 students through outreach programs.

Yoon Yeo, assistant professor of biomedical engineering and industrial and physical pharmacy, will use her grant to create new drug-delivery systems to help in the treatment of cystic fibrosis, the chronic lung disease caused by genetic defects. Direct delivery of drugs is challenging because of a thick mucous barrier that develops in the lungs as part of the disease. Yeo plans to create a layer of sugar-based biomaterial that can encapsulate nanoparticles and create a channel through the mucous as it dissolves. The sugars attract water and thin the mucous, allowing the therapeutic nanoparticle to slip through and reach the targeted lung cells. She is working to develop formulations that create fluffy particles that can be easily inhaled into the lungs. Yeo also is using the grant to create an outreach program to interest high school students in science. Undergraduates in the Engineering Projects in Community Service, or EPICS, program will create materials and activities for science teachers describing microparticles, their common uses and the chemistry involved.