Three University of Arizona researchers have received the 2016 National Science Foundation CAREER Award, the agency's most prestigious honor for junior faculty members who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, education and the integration of the two.
Erika Eggers, associate professor of physiology and biomedical engineering; John Jewett, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry; and Weigang Wang, assistant professor of physics, each won the award this year, collectively receiving more than $2.04 million toward their research.
"Having multiple NSF Early CAREER winners in the same year is a true testament to the quality of our junior faculty and their ability to be among the best in the nation," said Kimberly Andrews Espy, senior vice president for research at the UA. "Weigang, Erika and John will not only contribute excellent research to the UA, but also will enrich and expand the community's scientific understanding. I am truly proud to be able to say that our junior faculty serve as mentors to the next generation of scientists."
Eggers' research, titled "The Role of Inhibition in Light Adaptation of the OFF Retinal Pathway," will begin to illuminate the mechanisms that allow retinas to adjust from one level of brightness to another — for example, the adjustment that takes place when a person exits a dark movie theater into bright daylight.
"For decades, people have known that the sensitivity changes, but the mechanisms for that are not understood," said Eggers, whose research will explore dopamine signaling, as this is one of the neurotransmitter chemicals that scientists believe may be partly responsible for light adaptation in the retina.
In addition to researching in the Eggers Laboratory of Retinal Neurophysiology, Eggers and her team will educate the public on this issue in a number of ways, including developing instructional demos for venues such as the Tucson Festival of Books, giving lectures at Tucson-area high schools and creating a Facebook page for students in her lab to share information.
Wang's research, "Toward Ultra-Low Energy Switching in Spintronic Devices," focuses on the creation of spintronic devices that potentially could save a large amount of energy for technologies such as smart watches and other electronics. According to Wang, current technology is such that power is consumed even in the standby state. This can be seen in smartphones. A device allowing zero power consumption when idling "is amazing, and extremely useful," he said.
This summer, Wang's lab is hosting UA undergraduate students who are learning how to measure resistance of samples with different spin orientations. Wang also has created internships for students and teachers at Sunnyside High School so that they can be exposed to real-world research. For him, there is a larger incentive.
"Women and minorities are underrepresented in science," he said, "and diversity is really important to me. It helps tremendously to enhance research and the creation of novel, groundbreaking materials."
Jewett's research, "Triazabutadienes as a Versatile Tool in Chemical Biology," explores the reactivity and utility of this little-understood class of chemical compounds.
"Fundamentally, we're interested in studying viruses — in particular, dengue virus," Jewett said. "As chemists, we're looking for parts of the viral entry pathway that we could maybe target. We decided to develop small molecule probes, so that we can probe at the key times during entry" and better understand interactions between a virus and its host. The triazabutadienes serve as this small molecule probe.
Jewett also mentors students from Baboquivari Middle School on the Tohono O'odham Nation Reservation. His after-school outreach program, for which he travels to the reservation monthly, incorporates hands-on scientific experiments to teach students fundamental concepts in chemistry. The seventh-grade students, along with their teacher, Diana Rea, come to the UA campus once per semester to take tours of various research facilities with Jewett.
"It's really fun, and really rewarding," Jewett said. "There are high populations of unrepresented minorities that are being unreached and, as a scientist, I think having that diversity of perspective in the kinds of questions we care about and think to ask is important."