Baylor NSF CAREER Award-Winning Researchers Exemplify Diverse Range of Disciplines

September 20, 2018
News - CAREER Awardees (front)
Drs. Lorin Matthews, Bryan Shaw, Seung Kim, Caleb Martin and Howard Lee

Drs. Lorin Matthews, Bryan Shaw, Seung Kim, Caleb Martin and Howard Lee have received prestigious CAREER Awards from the National Science Foundation for their work in a wide variety of fields.

Contact: Whitney Richter, Director of Marketing and Communications, Office of the Vice Provost for Research, 254-710-7539
Written by: Gary Stokes, Office of the Vice Provost for Research

WACO, Texas (September 20, 2018) – From the latest life-saving medical devices and therapies to the electronic wizardry literally at our finger tips on a smartphone, technology clearly plays a huge role in the rich quality of life we all enjoy. That’s a fact well understood by decision-makers at the National Science Foundation (NSF) which, together with the National Institutes of Health, Department of Energy, Food and Drug Administration and other federal agencies, supplied 44 percent of all funds spent nationally on basic research in 2017.

While NSF supports researchers at every level of experience, the agency places a high priority on cultivating the work of promising scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians through typically five-year, Early Career Development Grants, known collectively as CAREER grants.

In 2009, Dr. Lorin Matthews was a young astrophysicist studying dusty plasmas at CASPER, Baylor’s Center for Astrophysics, Space Physics and Engineering Research, where today she serves as associate director. Her CAREER grant proposal, "Charging and Coagulation of Dust Grains in Astrophysical and Laboratory Environments," caught the attention of NSF reviewers, netting her a $437,000 grant to further study how asteroids and planets coalesce from the rings of dust particles that surround young stars. Delving into that mystery could help refine our knowledge of the behavior of similar dusty plasmas commonly used in industry. Matthews says her award was a watershed event in her development as a scientist.

“The CAREER award is aptly named,” Matthews said. “It truly did allow me to jump start my career, providing funds for a post-doctoral research assistant, graduate students, travel to conferences, publication costs, as well as key research equipment. Having funding in place for five years was a luxury which allowed me to focus on my research.”

In 2014, Baylor biochemist Dr. Bryan Shaw also was awarded a five-year, $405,000 CAREER grant to support his study of metalloproteins—proteins that contain metal ions. Previous research suggests that some metalloproteins may play a role in the development of some devastating neurological disorders. Shaw and the research group he heads are working to precisely measure and then modify metalloproteins’ net electrical charge. Shaw believes that altering the charge may reduce the protein’s toxicity to brain tissue—as occurs in Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s Disease—and might one day prevent or even reverse the formation of toxic protein plaques and tangles associated with Alzheimer’s Disease.

That same year saw associate professor of electrical and computer engineering Dr. Seung Kim win a CAREER grant totaling $400,000 for development of a low-cost biosensor capable of detecting substances associated with specific diseases and disorders in specimens of a patient’s blood. In detecting these so-called biomarkers, the biosensor can reveal the presence of cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, HIV, as well as a number of cancers, and do so at a stage when the conditions are most successfully treated. Kim sees his biosensor as having the potential to reduce the need for expensive laboratory tests and to eliminate the fretful wait for results, and it will be a “point-of-care” device that can be used in a physician’s office or even at the patient’s bedside.

Two Baylor investigators recently were notified of their selection to receive 2018 CAREER grants. Assistant professor of physics Dr. Howard Lee has received a five-year, $500,000 CAREER Award for development of ultra-thin, nanoscale optical films with electrically tunable properties. The films, called metasurfaces, are only a few hundred atoms thick and have the potential to dramatically reduce the size and weight of a vast range of optical and electro-optical devices, while also improving their performance.

Baylor assistant professor of chemistry Dr. Caleb Martin also received confirmation this year of a five-year, $650,000 CAREER grant awarded to further his research into synthesizing analogues of benzene containing boron. This class of materials is considered to have the potential to improve the durability and performance of organic photovoltaic solar cells and organic light emitting diodes used in such devices as smart phones, TVs and tablets. Martin further sees his work as having the potential to help bring electrical power to millions of people living in remote or underdeveloped regions of the world.

Vice provost for research Dr. Truell Hyde lauds Baylor’s CAREER grant recipients and regards getting the award as an accomplishment that can dramatically advance the careers of researchers who are just starting out.

“CAREER grants are among the federal grants most sought-after by young researchers. Besides the funding itself — which is very nice — winning a CAREER grant tells recipients that these agencies have high regard for their abilities as researchers and consider their work to be important. That’s a huge boost to any researcher’s self-confidence and reputation,” Hyde said, adding, “and it’s pretty good for their institution as well.”