Trio of Penn researchers awarded Sloan Fellowships

Since 1955, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has granted yearly fellowships to early-career scientists and scholars whose achievements and potential identify them as the next generation of scientific leaders.

Three Penn faculty members are among this year’s Sloan Research Fellowship recipients: Zahra Fakhraai, an assistant professor of chemistry in the School of Arts & Sciences, as well as Jennifer Phillips-Cremins, an assistant professor of bioengineering, and Aaron Roth, the Raj and Neera Singh Assistant Professor of Computer and Information Science, both of the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Fakhraai’s research is centered on the extraordinary behavior materials display on the nanoscale. A plastic water bottle, for instance, behaves more like a viscous liquid when zoomed within a nanometer of its surface. Fakhraai is interested in understanding how the properties of materials at the nanoscale differ from bulk. This includes understanding properties of amorphous solids, biopolymers, and interaction of light with matter at surfaces and interfaces.

To do so, she and her colleagues examine surfaces with nanoparticles and nanoscale probes, and observe how the molecules respond. Developing experiments and theories to explain how molecules and biomolecules pack on surfaces will help materials scientists design more effective and longer-lasting nanomaterials, or predict properties of biomaterials on cell surfaces.

Phillips-Cremins studies the “epigenome,” a chemical code layered on top of DNA that determines how genes are expressed. The epigenome causes cells with the same genetic code to diverge into everything from heart-forming cardiomyocytes to information-processing neurons. Phillips-Cremins’ laboratory uses computational, molecular, and cellular tools to study how the 3-D folding of the epigenome directs development of the human brain. Her research may one day allow scientists to engineer the epigenome to prevent or reverse neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease or Fragile X syndrome.

Roth’s interests lie in designing new algorithms for querying large datasets that protect an individual’s personal information while leading to more reliable outcomes. He and his colleagues are developing a “differentially private” approach that allows a company like Google to examine consumer trends in data while ensuring that individual information is not revealed. The same tool may help scientists reduce the rate of false positive discoveries, which often stem from patterns driven by outlying individuals in a dataset, rather than generalizable trends that apply to the set at large.

To qualify for the Sloan Research Fellowship, candidates must be nominated by their peers and selected by an independent panel of senior scholars. Each Fellow receives a $50,000 award to further his or her research.

Sloan Fellowship