U.Va. Invests in Four Researchers Whose Work Has High-Impact Potential

Targeting antibiotic drug-resistance, charting the birth of star clusters, creating private Web services and discovering how to improve brain function in disorders such as autism – these areas span the range of research to be funded by the University of Virginia’s Vice President for Research office.

David Evans, professor of computer science in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and Jonathan Kipnis, professor of neuroscience and director of the Center for Brain Immunology and Glia in the School of Medicine, will receive Distinguished Research Awards. Kelsey Johnson, associate professor of astronomy in the College of Arts & Sciences, and Jason Papin, associate professor of biomedical engineering in the engineering and medical schools, will receive Distinguished Research Career Development Awards.

The U.Va. research office introduced the annual awards last year to demonstrate the University’s support and commitment to outstanding science, technology, engineering and math, and to catalyze new, high-impact research of the most promising faculty.

 “U.Va. is so pleased to recognize and support the inspiring and impactful work of these faculty researchers,” said Tom Skalak, vice president for research. “Their discoveries and innovations will create cutting-edge student experiences as defined in the Cornerstone Plan, and in the process will change our understanding of the universe we inhabit, advance computing technology and improve human health.”

David Evans

Evans, the first U.Va. professor to teach a massive open online course (an introductory computer science course for Udacity in 2012), works on computer security, including programming languages, software engineering, systems security, cryptography, mobile networking and distributed security. His research group develops systems for private Web services, which would allow users to keep their sensitive data from being open to the service provider, which is now the case.

“Users would interact with these services similarly to how they use services like Gmail and Facebook today, but would do so in a way that does not expose any of their private data to the service provider,” Evans wrote about the project. “Building such a service involves several significant challenges that have not previously been considered by secure computation researchers.”

His nominator, computer science professor Mary Lou Soffa, said, “Dave’s research ... has introduced ideas that have directly impacted the design of billions of devices, and produced openly distributed software tools which are used by thousands of organizations and incorporated into commercial products.”

Evans won the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia’s Outstanding Faculty Award in 2009 and an All-University Teaching Award in 2008. He has B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in computer science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Jonathan Kipnis

Kipnis founded and directs the Center for Brain Immunology and Glia at the School of Medicine. At the forefront of an important emerging field, the multidisciplinary center seeks to understand the role of the immune system in the health of the brain and nervous system.


Kipnis’ lab does cutting-edge research on central nervous system injury and neurodegenerative diseases; cognitive and mental disorders; and neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism-spectrum disorders and Rett syndrome. He aims to understand basic cellular and molecular interactions between the two complex systems – the nervous and immune systems – to then apply these principles to the development of new therapies that would improve cognitive function and slow the progression of diseases of the brain.


“Nominating Jony Kipnis for the Distinguished Research Award was an obvious choice,” said Kevin S. Lee, who chairs the Department of Neuroscience. “His ability to think outside the box has helped redefine our understanding of how the immune system interacts with the nervous system. His innovative research has the potential to impact diverse areas ranging from autism to depression to spinal cord injury.”


Kipnis received his Ph.D. from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, and joined the School of Medicine in 2007.

Jason Papin

Papin develops computational models of the biochemical networks that direct cellular activity, but he described his new project as “harnessing systems biology to tackle drug resistance.”

The models he and his research team make turn a microscopic view into a big picture of what’s happening within the cell, allowing scientists to better understand biological processes, test hypotheses about cell behavior and find important new leads in the battle against disease.

Papin is turning his attention to the global healthcare problem emerging from antibiotic resistant microbes, which he calls “potentially catastrophic.” He is answering the need for a radical new approach to elucidate the processes by which bacteria (and also cancer cells) become resistant to the drugs that are designed to kill them.

“Jason Papin is a wonderful scientist, teacher and colleague,” said nominator Dr. Erik Hewlett. “His novel perspective and creativity make his work in computational systems biology applicable to a wide range of subjects, from algae metabolism to life-threatening infectious diseases.”

Papin received his Ph.D. from the University of California, San Diego and joined the U.Va. faculty in 2005.

Kelsey Johnson

Johnson is dedicated to understanding what physical conditions in the early universe gave birth to its galaxies and stars. Her research on globular clusters – areas brimming with millions of stars – has helped shift astronomy’s “understanding of the conditions and structure formation near the beginning of time,” she said.

“Studying the fossil record of nearby old globular clusters has revealed quite a bit about the early universe conditions in which they formed. My work has focused on something even more powerful – understanding globular clusters that are forming today,” she wrote about her project. “For the first time we are able to begin probing the conditions in these proto-clusters before stars have formed.”

To further her research, she’ll use the most technologically advanced observatory on the planet, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array in Chile.

Astronomy professor Michael Skrutskie, who chairs the department, nominated Johnson and wrote about her work with the new observatory. “Those with early access to the newest observing capabilities make the big discoveries,” he said.

“As a world leader in the field of extragalactic star formation and a pioneer in ‘super star cluster’ research, Kelsey Johnson is in a unique position to exploit the newly available capabilities of the most powerful telescope of our time – the Atacama Large Millimeter Array in Chile – operated by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory right here in Charlottesville,” Skrutskie said.

A recipient of a Packard Foundation Fellowship and a National Science Foundation CAREER Award, Johnson also directs the program “Dark Skies, Bright Kids,” a volunteer program in local elementary schools to show children science can be fun, creative and exciting through a variety of activities.

Johnson earned her master’s and doctoral degrees in astrophysics from the University of Colorado and her B.A. in physics from Carleton College.

The Distinguished Research Career Award gives recently tenured faculty $50,000 for a two-year period, and the Distinguished Research Award for senior faculty provides $150,000 over three years.

Last year’s winners of the Distinguished Research Awards were Paulo D’Odorico, Ernest H. Ern Professor of Environmental Sciences,
and Olivier Pfister, professor of experimental atomic, molecular and optical physics. A Distinguished Research Career Award went to Benton Calhoun, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering.

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