Seven Young Faculty Innovators Selected for U.Va.'s FEST Awards

June 15, 2010 — Seven rising faculty members have been selected this year as Distinguished Young Investigators 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 provides start-up money for promising high-stakes research.

The awardees are: the civil and environmental engineering team of Andres Clarens and Lisa Colosi; biologist Christopher Deppmann; molecular physiologist Salem Faham; pathologist Hui Li; environmental scientist Matt Reidenbach; and computer scientist abhi shelat.

Their projects, spanning medical research, engineering and basic and environmental sciences, will receive awards ranging from $35,000 to $50,000. This is the sixth year that the University has awarded FEST Distinguished Young Investigator grants. Previous winners have gone on to receive NSF Faculty Early Career Development awards, a Packard Fellowship and significant funding from federal agencies.

Thomas C. Skalak, U.Va. vice president for research, speaks highly of the program. "The U.Va. FEST awards enable frontier research in a variety of scientific and engineering research domains, from biotechnology to ocean ecosystems to computer systems," he said. "They also symbolize the growth of a culture of innovation at U.Va. and in the nation – a culture that requires broad interactions among disciplines and people."

He noted that the University normally awards four FEST grants per year, but this year added two more to "recognize and support the depth and breadth of people who are building this culture at U.Va." This year, 35 proposals were presented to the review committee. Winners were chosen based on their originality and likeliness to attract significant federal funding.

"We had a particularly strong set of applications for FEST awards this year," said astronomer Craig Sarazin, a member of the review committee. "It is very encouraging to see the extremely high quality of the young faculty in the sciences and engineering that U.Va. has been able to recruit in recent years. The proposals covered an amazingly broad range of research topics, from very basic science areas to research in
fields with very important applications to medicine and national security. Many of our young researchers have the potential to become the scientific leaders of our country and world in the future."

The FEST program is designed to help the University identify some of its most promising young faculty in engineering and science. Sarazin said the funds are relatively unfettered, allowing risk-taking innovation.

"These high-risk/high-reward projects are hard to get funded initially from federal agencies, but can lead to completely new scientific breakthroughs; and, of course, very significant funding once they have been proven," he said.

Details of the FEST awardees:

• Andres Clarens and Lisa Colosi, Civil and Environmental Engineering, School of Engineering and Applied Science

Civil and environmental engineers Andres Clarens and Lisa Colosi have distinct but complementary experience in bioremediation and life-cycle assessment, according to their mentor, James Smith, a professor of civil and environmental engineering. They are working together on "high-impact" research in algal bioenergy production. Algae-based fuels have been discussed extensively and some companies, including ExxonMobil, are making huge investments in the area even though the overall environmental implications of the technology are unknown.

Clarens and Colosi have led a comprehensive study showing that the effects on the environment of algae fuels are quite high and suggest that many of these effects could be reduced if wastewater were used to grow algae.

"Interestingly," Smith said, "by linking algae cultivation to wastewater treatment, they have demonstrated that it could be possible to remove other contaminants, such as the drug compounds increasingly found in municipal wastewater. I expect that together this team will make important contributions of great interest to the biofuels community, the wastewater community, and the broader field of environmental engineering."

He added that the Clarens-Colosi collaboration will be "synergistic and accelerate the progress of their research."

• Christopher Deppmann, Department of Biology, College of Arts & Sciences

Biologist Christopher Deppmann's research describes the molecular basis underlying a 50-year-old Nobel Prize-winning hypothesis positing that during the development of the nervous system, neurons compete with one another for survival and proper connectivity. In this way, the best connections survive to form the nervous system.

Lately Deppmann has been considering the consequences of these competitive programs in other contexts, involving possibly several types of diseases.

"When one considers that diseases like cancer are inappropriately co-opting developmental programs for their proliferation and spread, it seems possible that pathological neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's, Lou Gehrig's, and Parkinson's diseases might involve the same mechanisms, now gone awry," said Deppmann's mentor, biology professor Jay Hirsh. "The mechanisms that Chris and his laboratory group have described provide a foothold into testing this idea.

"It will be extremely interesting to see where his laboratory at U.Va. goes with this in the future. This FEST award is an acknowledgement of the potential in this line of inquiry."

• Matt Reidenbach, Department of Environmental Sciences, College of Arts & Sciences

Environmental scientist Matt Reidenbach is studying how climate change is affecting the health of coral reefs in the Caribbean Sea, which are dying at unprecedented rates. Scientists are scrambling to find answers; some believe a virus is the root cause, and others, including Reidenbach, attribute the losses to rising sea levels and warming seas.

Reidenbach is using the coral reef system as a gauge for understanding the impacts of a changing climate on marine ecosystems. Many of the organisms in the world's oceans migrate or move about with changing tides and currents, but corals, and many of the species that live among them, are mostly fixed in location. Reidenbach's innovation is to use coral reefs as distinctive physical laboratories.

"Matt's research, in collaboration with the terrific students he has attracted since coming to U.Va., is leading-edge in this challenging field," said Reidenbach's mentor, Robert Dolan, a professor of environmental sciences. "We are very fortunate to have Matt's leadership in this important field of climate change research."

Dolan added that Reidenbach's students report that his lectures and courses are among the most interesting offered by the faculty in the Department of Environmental Sciences.

• Hui Li, Department of Pathology, School of Medicine

When Hui Li was a post-doctoral fellow at Yale University, he made "a stunning discovery" that is changing the way scientists think about how genes actually function in controlling human growth and development, according to Li's mentor, pathology professor Michael Weber. 

"Hui discovered that the messenger RNAs that are produced by genes, and that serve as templates for proteins, can actually be spliced together from two completely separate genes that can even reside on different chromosomes. Since a human genome has over 3 billion base pairs with 30,000 genes divided among 46 chromosomes, the mechanical logistics of this 'trans-splicing' are difficult to imagine."

Moreover, Hui discovered that the trans-spliced RNA corresponds to a chromosomal translocation that occurs in some endometrial cancers. This suggests that a normal, regulated genetic function (making a messenger RNA from two separate genes) can be made permanent and cancer-causing by shuffling the parts of two genes. Since many cancers are caused by chromosomal translocations, this implies that trans-splicing of RNAs can set the stage for numerous cancers.

"Understanding how trans-splicing occurs, how it's regulated, how it controls cell growth, and how it leads to chromosomal translocations opens up a new way to think about the causes, diagnosis, prevention, and cure of cancer," Weber said.

• Salem Faham, Molecular Physiology and Biological Physics, School of Medicine

Salem Faham studies the structural biology of membrane proteins; protein molecules attached to or associated with the membrane of a cell or an organelle. These proteins carry out many vital functions, such as transporting and receiving nutrients in cells, which are critical to the overall function and health of an organism, including humans.

Due to many technical challenges, relatively few membrane proteins have been catalogued, and for this reason, the function and structure of membrane proteins are not well understood.

Faham is developing new techniques and technologies to grow these crystal-like structures and gain a clearer picture of how they work. This could lead, eventually, to new drug therapies that would better target these proteins, which may play a role in an array of human diseases.

"Protein crystals can naturally self-assemble into highly ordered, three-dimensional structures, making them potential tools for generation of nano materials," said Robert Nakamoto, a professor of pathology and Faham's mentor. "Salem hypothesizes that by taking advantage of known symmetries, he should be able to assemble proteins into pre-designed structures. To do this, he will develop tools that will influence the growth of a protein crystal into a desired three-dimensional lattice.

"With the FEST award, Salem now would like to use his experience to develop tools to generate nano materials from protein building blocks. Such information will reveal potentially useful features that can be used as starting points for protein self-assembly into new geometries and architectures."

• abhi shelat, Department of Computer Science, School of Engineering and Applied Science

abhi shelat is a computer scientist whose research focuses on cryptography, security and game theory. He will use his FEST award to support his work on how to construct the next generation of encryption schemes that are suitable for use on the Internet. He also works on designing secure protocols that allow parties to collaboratively compute functions on their private data in a secure manner. Both of these projects are important for protecting individual privacy on the Internet.

"abhi is one of the best and brightest young faculty at U.Va.," said Gabriel Robins, his mentor and a professor of computer science. "abhi is an insightful and original thinker, who often comes up with novel and elegant solutions to difficult computer science problems. He possesses a rare combination of vision and creativity that enables him to select highly original research topics that are both theoretically significant as well as applicable in practice. He is clearly becoming one of the scholars and leaders that will help architect the future of U.Va. and its School of Engineering."

Robins also noted that shelat cares a great deal about teaching and pedagogy.

"We often have long conversations and exchange ideas about how to better explain to students deep and subtle theoretical concepts. He is exactly the breed of excellent young faculty that U.Va. strives to recruit and nurture."

— By Fariss Samarrai