Three Penn Researchers Awarded Sloan Fellowships

Three University of Pennsylvania faculty members are among this year’s Sloan Research Fellowship recipients.

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

To qualify, 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.

Penn’s 2015 Sloan Fellows are:

Zahra Fakhraai, assistant professor of chemistry, School of Arts and Sciences — At the nanoscale, materials display extraordinary behavior. 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 understand properties of amorphous solids, biopolymers and interaction of light with matter at surface and interfaces. To do so, she and her colleagues probe 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.

Jennifer Phillips-Cremins, assistant professor of bioengineering, School of Engineering and Applied Science  — Layered on top of DNA is another chemical code, one that determines how genes are expressed, when and where. This so-called “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.

Aaron Roth, the Raj and Neera Singh Assistant Professor of Computer and Information Science, School of Engineering and Applied Science — In the Internet age, the practice of mining consumer data for useful information is widespread and has raised concerns about individual privacy. 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. Roth 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.

“The beginning of a one’s career is a crucial time in the life of a scientist. Building a lab, attracting funding in an increasingly competitive environment and securing tenure all depend on doing innovative, original high-quality work and having that work recognized,” said Paul L. Joskow, president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. “For more than 50 years the Sloan Foundation has been proud to celebrate the achievements of extraordinary young scientists who are pushing the boundaries of scientific knowledge.”

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