Four NU profs receive distinguished fellowship

Jillian Sandler

Four Northwestern professors were chosen to receive a $50,000 two-year research fellowship from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Toby Gee, assistant professor of mathematics; Jiaxing Huang, assistant professor of materials science and engineering; David McLean, assistant professor of neurobiology and physiology; and Emily A. Weiss, the Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor of Chemistry were among the 118 grant recipients chosen from around the country.

According to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a not-for-profit grantmaking institution based in New York City, recipients were chosen due to their outstanding performance in their studies and potential to make a significant contribution to their respective fields.

“Being named a Sloan Fellow is an incredible honor,” McLean said in an e-mail. “It is humbling to go through the list of past winners and to realize that the members of the selection committee think you are in their league.”

The fellowship recipients were nominated for the grant, which has been awarded annually since 1955, by their department chairmen. The ensuing application process consisted of a one-page statement describing past accomplishments in research and future research plans. The applications were reviewed by a panel consisting of members from each applicant’s respective field.

Recipients were notified of their award Feb. 10 in an e-mail from the Sloan Foundation’s president, Paul L. Joskow. Each grant will be awarded to the recipients in September. The money will help fund research being carried out in the fields of mathematics, chemistry, biology, computer science and economics.

Gee said he plans to use the money for his research in the Langlands program, a program in number theory that deals with the relations between equations in whole numbers.

“There are some mysterious symmetries in these objects, and understanding them tells us a lot about whole numbers,” Gee wrote in an e-mail.

Gee will also research pure mathematics, which he said “consists of a mixture of thinking hard, working out examples, and talking with colleagues.”

McLean intends to study how organisms’ nervous systems change during development, with a focus on what happens to the networks of nerve cells that give animals the ability to move. He and his colleagues plan to observe zebra fish to gain insight into this area of biology.

“In much the same way humans refine their locomotor capabilities with age, from crawling to walking to running to ballet, so too do most animals,” McLean said. “Ultimately, we hope to provide insight into developmental disorders that affect our capacity to move.”

Weiss and her research team will be using the money to observe the optical and electronic properties of nanostructures and the relation of these properties to the chemistry at the surface of the nanostructures. Huang and his team plan to study construction and processing of nanomaterials and their practical applications.

The Sloan fellowship will give its recipients the opportunity to collaborate more closely with their colleagues, Gee said.

“It will give me the opportunity to travel more to visit my collaborators, and also to bring them to me,” he said. “Much of my work is collaborative … and it’s far easier to make progress when you’re in the same room at the same blackboard.”

The money awarded will also allow the researchers to push new limits in research that they would not have been able to test otherwise.

“I plan to use the money to pursue riskier projects, to test ideas that would be difficult to fund without a lot of pilot data,” McLean said. “I expect the Sloan Fellowship will spark some exciting work in the lab.”

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