December 9, 2010 — Two University of Virginia scientists, Linda Columbus and Austen Lamacraft, have been named Cottrell Scholars by the Research Corporation for Science Advancement.
Columbus is an assistant professor of chemistry in the College of Arts & Sciences. Lamacraft is an assistant professor of physics in the College. They are among 11 early-career scientists selected from a national pool of candidates. Columbus and Lamacraft are the only two Cottrell Scholars this year from the state of Virginia.
Cottrell scholarships, which provide $75,000 in funding, recognize young faculty who excel at both teaching and research, and they are among the most prestigious fellowships for beginning faculty in the sciences. They are intended to help perpetuate the nation's history of scientific pre-eminence, especially in the face of ever-increasing global competition.
Columbus' research is focused on determining how bacteria interact with and within human cells. An understanding of these molecular interactions would provide insights for ways to design eventual therapeutic delivery systems – ways to get drugs into people more selectively, such as only into tumor cells and not into healthy cells.
Many specialized bacterial membrane proteins hijack human cellular pathways by mimicking or manipulating the machinery within the cell. The goal of Columbus' research with the Cottrell scholarship is to investigate the structure and dynamics of bacterial outer membrane proteins and their interactions with host receptors.
She also is developing a course for chemistry undergraduates, "From Lab Bench to Your Medicine Cabinet," which introduces methods of drug discovery.
"The course will meet twice a week with one class of discussion on a topic and accompanying research paper, and one class with students' presentations on particular drug discoveries and their mechanism of action," she said.
Lamacraft is investigating magnetic phenomena in the very coldest systems that can be created in a laboratory: gases of alkali metal atoms a million times thinner than air. Such extreme conditions are worth studying partly because the structure of the atoms imparts the gas with magnetic behavior unlike any other known systems.
"The research program I am pursuing attempts to theoretically understand the magnetic properties of these new states of matter," he said.
An understanding of these properties, he said, could be applied to the construction of high-precision magnetometers using ultracold gases. Magnometers have a range of uses, from the recording of faint brain activity to the manufacturing of semiconductors.
The Cottrell award will allow Lamacraft to establish a problem-based, laboratory-style course where physics majors hone their mathematical skills while solving physically motivated problems in an interactive and collaborative setting. The goal of the new course, he said, is to "develop mathematical dexterity and to find out how physicists conceptualize and use the mathematics that they have already learned."
Cottrell scholars are selected by peer review from among applicants from across the nation. Originality, feasibility and the prospect for significant fundamental advances to science are the main criteria; contributions to undergraduate education are also a consideration.
The awards are named for science visionary Frederick Gardner Cottrell, whose generosity made Research Corporation for Science Advancement possible and whose invention of the electrostatic precipitator was an early environmental innovation that reduced pollution from smokestacks.
The Research Corporation for Science Advancement, founded in 1912, is the second-oldest foundation in the United States (after the Carnegie Corporation) and the oldest foundation for science advancement. It is a leading advocate for the sciences and a major funder of scientific innovation and of research in America's colleges and universities.