May 20, 2011 — Five top junior faculty members have been named Distinguished Young Investigators this year through the University of Virginia's Fund for Excellence in Science and Technology. Sponsored by the Office of the Vice President for Research, the fund – now in its seventh year – provides seed money for promising innovative research.
This year's winners are microbiologist Alison Criss and public health scientist Aaron Quinlan from the School of Medicine, and astronomer Remy Indebetouw, biologist Sarah Kucenas and physicist Christopher Neu from the College of Arts & Sciences.
The awardees received grants of $50,000 to get their high-stakes research started toward greater future funding. Previous FEST winners have gone on to win substantial federal funding, a Packard Fellowship, and National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Awards.
"The FEST program is a superb way to accelerate the ideas of U.Va.'s most innovative young scholars," Thomas C. Skalak, vice president for research, said. "Over the years, FEST projects have been the launching pad for research that produces high scientific, social and economic impact."
U.Va. faculty members are annually invited to submit proposals for FEST funding. This year, 17 researchers from across the scientific disciplines presented a range of projects. A review committee made up of senior faculty chose the winners based on originality and likeliness of attracting significant future funding.
"In a field of extremely strong proposals, three young biomedical researchers stood out as leaders in their respective fields," said microbiology professor Marcia McDuffie, who served on the review committee.
Criss garnered FEST funding for a project that will use state-of-the-art techniques to define the mechanisms by which pathogenic Neisseria bacteria evade clearance by the immune system, generating devastating diseases such as gonorrhea. The methods she is developing could lead to breakthroughs in understanding at the genome level the resistance of gonorrhea – and other global infectious diseases – to current antibiotics.
"Dr. Criss has established an internationally recognized research program on the interactions between bacteria and the human immune system," McDuffie noted.
In another project expected to provide new approaches to the treatment of disease, Kucenas plans to use her FEST award to develop a new model of nerve injury and repair to extend her groundbreaking investigations on the interactions between neurons and supporting cells in the peripheral nervous system during their primary development.
"This work will suggest new approaches that will enhance the healing of damaged nerves," McDuffie said. "Kucenas' insights are likely to enhance the recovery of thousands of individuals every year affected by traumatic or infectious injury to nerves affecting sensation and motor function."
Quinlan, who this year joined the Department for Public Health Sciences and the Center for Public Health Genomics, will use his FEST award to identify genetic contributors to the development of cancer, particularly ovarian cancer.
"Leveraging huge new public databases carrying information on individual tumors and normal human DNA, Dr. Quinlan will use novel computation approaches developed in his laboratory to pinpoint hotspots for mutations and structural changes in DNA that can lead to dysregulation of cellular proliferation and survival," McDuffie said.
In the physical sciences, astronomer Remy Indebetouw and physicist Christopher Neu are seeking answers to some of the most fundamental questions about how the universe works.
Indebetouw is known for his work on the astrophysics and chemical processes taking place in the gas and dust between stars and in the star-forming regions of galaxies, and for his discovery of a previously unknown mode by which galaxies form stars. He holds a joint appointment with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, and is poised to conduct research using the Atacama Large Millimeter Array telescope, the world's most technologically advanced and expensive telescope, now under construction in the high desert of Chile.
"He is that rare breed of astronomer whose research, described in an incredibly prolific 90 peer-reviewed publications to date, truly spans all corners of the discipline," said astronomer Steven Majewski, also a member of the review committee.
Neu is a leader in a group of physicists using a particle detector, the Compact Muon Solenoid, at the new Large Hadron Collider near Geneva. The goal is to discover the Higgs boson, a hypothetical elementary particle thought responsible for imparting mass to matter and therefore an integral and pervasive part of the material world.
"Neu, an expert in studies of another subatomic particle that is known to exist – the 'top quark' – cleverly noted similarities between the theoretical signature of decaying Higgs bosons and the known decay signature of the more familiar top quarks, and, in doing so, identified two new ways that the Compact Muon Solenoid and Large Hadron Collider might identify the signal of the elusive Higgs particle," Majewski noted. "Chris' steep trajectory to management of a key part of the LHC mission brings a high profile to the University of Virginia within the international scientific community – one that will be even greater should his efforts be responsible for helping to make this most monumental of physics breakthroughs."