The U.S. government has honored three University of Virginia faculty members – Ben Castleman, Nitya Kallivayalil and Marilyne Stains – with the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor it gives to scientists and engineers at the beginning of their research careers who show great potential for leadership and advancing scientific knowledge in their fields, and who also are making a contribution to science, technology, engineering and math education.
All three have accomplished groundbreaking research in their fields and simultaneously worked to help underrepresented students succeed in college, especially in STEM fields.
“We are delighted to see three UVA researchers early in their careers honored by the White House,” Melur K. “Ram” Ramasubramanian, UVA’s vice president for research, said. “This honor recognizes the quality and the importance of their work, their potential in developing as outstanding scholars in their careers, as well as its impact of their work on the community.”
The winners were honored by the White House at a ceremony on Thursday in Washington, D.C.
• Benjamin Castleman, assistant professor of education and public policy in the Curry School of Education and Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy
Castleman is founder and director of UVA’s Nudge⁴ Solutions Lab, which uses big data to devise effective behavioral strategies that encourage students to apply to and complete college.
Castleman’s early career as a high school teacher and administrator reinforced his belief in the power of education and its importance to economic mobility for low-income and first-generation college students. But the path to college is not easy for students with limited access to mentors and information.
Using technology to reach these students, as well as targeted counseling and mentorship, has been the key to helping them avoid the pitfalls that can lead them to drop out of school.
Castleman applies behavioral economics and data science to his research projects. For one of his projects, “Nudges to the Finish Line,” Castleman and his colleagues are partnering with multiple community colleges in Virginia to increase college completion among students at high risk of withdrawal. Early results suggest these nudges can lead to substantial increases in degree completion.
The Department of Education nominated Castleman for a Presidential Early Career Award.
“The PECASE award for me is an acknowledgement of the value of highly collaborative research partnerships with public agencies and organizations,” Castleman said. “Without our agencies’ investment and engagement, our research efforts would not be possible.”
One of his next projects will focus on identifying students who perform well in high school STEM classes and who want to pursue a STEM field in college, but may encounter challenges following through on this intention. Castleman’s team will provide targeted STEM advising, connecting students to mentors at universities who can provide valuable advice.
• Nitya Kallivayalil, assistant professor of astronomy
Kallivayalil is an astrophysicist who is testing big-picture predictions of the universe’s birth and evolution. Her work is in near-field cosmology, and she looks for answers to questions around the nature of dark matter, which makes up the vast majority of the mass in the universe.
Kallivayalil looks at nearby galaxies using the NASA Hubble Space Telescope and the Gemini Observatory in Chile to learn about dark matter, observing the gravitational effect of dark matter on other objects. One of her findings is that the Milky Way might have twice the dark matter content than was thought.
She has also confirmed through precision measurements that a satellite galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud, is advancing into the Milky Way and bringing along its own satellite system. The fact that satellite galaxies host their own satellites is a key prediction of dark matter theory.
In 2015, Kallivayalil won a National Science Foundation Early Career Development award for her research. She used the award to start a five-year collaboration with Spelman College to help nurture and train future STEM leaders from underrepresented groups, and especially to attract more women of color to astronomy. Every year, two fellows from Spelman come to UVA to help her with her research.
“Getting exposed to research at an early age is an important stepping stone to a STEM career. I want to make sure that especially women of color have that experience,” Kallivayalil said.
Kallivayalil was nominated for a PECASE by the National Science Foundation.
• Marilyne Stains, associate professor of chemistry
Stains, a former professor at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, will begin teaching in UVA’s Department of Chemistry this fall. Her evidence-based research, which involves interviews, surveys and observation, is focused on what science faculty do in the classroom and how they make their instructional decisions. New curriculum and new strategies for teaching can bring positive outcomes for students in the classroom, and she said she hopes her research helps faculty be less resistant to change.
Stains, who was nominated for a Presidential Early Career Award by the National Science Foundation, will continue this work when she arrives at UVA, and will also continue her research project following STEM faculty over several years and evaluating those faculty members after professional development to see what changed.