Three KU Engineering faculty recognized for early career research achievement
LAWRENCE — Three assistant professors from the University of Kansas School of Engineering have each received prestigious national awards granted to early-career faculty whose research shows promise.
Mohammad Alian, assistant professor of electrical engineering & computer science, and Justin Hutchison, assistant professor of civil, environmental & architectural engineering, each received National Science Foundation Career Development (CAREER) awards. Cheng Huang, assistant professor of aerospace engineering, received the Air Force Office of Scientific Research’s Young Investigator Research Program award.
“This type of early-career recognition demonstrates the excellence of our faculty and helps elevate the national profile of the KU School of Engineering and the university,” said Arvin Agah, dean of KU Engineering.
About the awardees:
Mohammad Alian, assistant professor of electrical engineering & computer science, won a five-year, $533,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for his research rethinking the internal networking of data centers — work to reduce latency, cut power consumption and accelerate speeds, all by maximizing the capacities of computing hardware.
Alian works on what is known as a near-memory data center network. The goal is to create interchip optical interconnections that deliver data directly from top-of-rack switch ports to processor chips and memory units by following a single instruction. No longer needed would be the comparatively stifling combination of multilayered software stacks, complex network protocol processes, frequent data movements and ongoing device management common in current data centers.
The potential network architecture would be transformative, able to deliver remote memory access at faster than 500 nanoseconds more than 99.9% of the time, all while using 100 times less communication energy. And in a data-driven world where bandwidth requirements for data centers double every 12 or 15 months, finding efficiency is critical.
“Thanks to the advancement in CMOS (complementary metal-oxide semiconductor) technology scaling, also known as Moore’s Law, we can build chips that are amazingly fast in processing the data — but if we cannot feed enough data to these chips, they are useless,” Alian said. “This award will enable us to re-architect the data center network, from the application down to the hardware layer, to deliver data between the extremely fast processing elements at speeds close to hardware limits.”
Alian plans to use award financing to provide training for K-12 teachers as well as for undergraduate and graduate students, with a focus on under-represented minority and first-generation students in rural Kansas. He expects such training to boost university enrollment in computing and to help address the shortage of information technology professionals across the state and nationwide.
Justin Hutchison, assistant professor of civil, environmental & architectural engineering, won a five-year, $560,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for his research into microbes that can break up chemicals in soil and groundwater.
His research focuses on microorganisms that can break down emerging contaminants. While current research methods rely on culturing microorganisms — and only 5% of such microorganisms in a soil sample can even be cultured — Hutchison is working to broaden the field by examining the proteins of all such microorganisms directly, in the soil itself.
The issue is immense. According to the American Water Works Association, threats to drinking water posed by emerging contaminants could prompt $370 billion in system upgrades — all to treat pollutants that include some so toxic that the EPA issues health advisories for concentrations as low as 0.004 parts per trillion.
Hutchison wants to address this growing threat. By using the same approach used to advance disease-targeting abilities of pharmaceuticals, he aims to identify particularly enzymes that can degrade such chemical pollutants into harmless byproducts.
“This grant is an acknowledgment that biological processes play a vital role in protecting our drinking water supply and that alternatives to our current research methods are needed to advance research in this area,” Hutchison said. “It will play an important role in training the next generation of undergraduate and graduate students to advance sustainable solutions to protect and treat our drinking water.”
CAREER awards are considered among the NSF’s most prestigious, given to about 500 early-career faculty each year with the potential to serve as academic role models in both research and education. NSF expects recipients’ activities to build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research.
Cheng Huang, assistant professor of aerospace engineering, received a three-year, $450,000 grant from the U.S. Air Force for his work using data-science techniques to understand and model combustion physics and to help improve combustion devices’ performance and safety.
Huang received the award through the Air Force Office of Scientific Research’s Young Investigator Research Program. The program, known as YIP, supports early-career engineers and scientists who show “exceptional ability and promise” as they conduct basic research in science and engineering.
Huang’s research — “Generalizable Data-Driven Modeling Framework for Understanding and Modeling Turbulent Combustion” — involves energy, combustion and nonequilibrium thermodynamics. Huang and his team use data and models to help boost the accuracy of combustion simulations for everything from traditional liquid rocket engines that launch satellites into space to scramjets that move hypersonic projectiles at more than five times the speed of sound.
The advanced modeling also can assist development of future propulsion systems such as rotating detonation engines, a promising alternative to traditional combustion. The grant is helping Huang’s years of work get even further off the ground.
“This award allows me and my team to leverage the novel techniques originated from data sciences to inform accurate computational models to describe turbulent combustion physics at conditions that cannot easily be assessed and significantly improves our understanding of these challenging physics,” he said.
Such innovative thinking aligns with the mission of the YIP, considered among the most prestigious research awards that new faculty members can receive. Huang is among 58 scientists and engineers from 44 research institutions and businesses in 22 states to win a YIP award this year.