Prestigious awards recognize early career researchers

Inspiring minds

By Carson Byers

The National Science Foundation has recognized four Kansas State University researchers with Faculty Early Career Development, or CAREER, awards — the foundation’s most esteemed honor for early career faculty members. The CAREER awards will help support the vital work of these researchers as they launch projects in various fields.

Sonny Lee

Assistant professor in the Division of Biology College of Arts and Sciences

AREA OF STUDY: The interactions among plants and their soil microbiomes

AWARD: Nearly $901,000 NSF CAREER award

PROJECT TITLE: “How do rhizosphere associated microorganisms and plant host interact to regulate soil microbial processes”

PROJECT DESCRIPTION: This project will link plant gene diversity to rhizosphere, or soil, microbial composition and determine how the rhizobiome affects plant function and resistance to drought stress. The work will allow Lee and his team to better understand how plant-rhizobiome interactions influence ecosystem sustainability, which is critical for anticipating ecosystem responses to environmental change. Lee will integrate education with research and will collaborate with students and citizen scientists to determine this mechanistic interaction and how that affects fitness and drought resistance.

FROM THE RESEARCHER: “We are excited to identify the potential mechanism in which the plant and its associated microbes can work together to become more resilient under climate change conditions,” Lee said. “We are also thrilled to be working holistically with our citizen science partners and collaborators to extend our research to the public and students.”

Won Min Park

Assistant professor in the Tim Taylor Department of Chemical Engineering Carl R. Ice College of Engineering

AREA OF STUDY: Protein biomaterials engineering

AWARD: $550,000 NSF CAREER award

PROJECT TITLE: “Modular protein origami to build genetically programmable biomaterials”

PROJECT DESCRIPTION: Park will develop a simple, modular and versatile technology to direct the folding and assembly of protein biomaterials using a molecular version of origami. This project will examine the genetic programming of complex functionalities into the biomaterials created from this process. Additionally, Park will produce educational activities that will train students in protein biomaterials engineering.

FROM THE RESEARCHER: “This project will focus on understanding the process of nanoscale origami using the building blocks of engineered proteins,” Park said. “The technology of modular protein origami will create next-generation tools for the advancements in biomanufacturing and health care.”

Tendai Gadzikwa

Associate professor in the Department of ChemistryCollege of Arts and Sciences

AREA OF STUDY: Molecular reactions

AWARD: Nearly $780,000 NSF CAREER award

PROJECT TITLE: “Confinement effects and emergent behavior in multifunctional MOF-based catalysts”

PROJECT DESCRIPTION: Gadzikwa’s lab studies, designs and synthesizes porous materials that are known as metal-organic frameworks. These materials have physical and chemical structures modeled after the active sites of enzymes, which are the most efficient catalysts known to researchers. This project will better understand the molecular origins of unexpected reactivity and confinement effects within these materials so researchers can design and construct efficient catalysts.

FROM THE RESEARCHER: “Emergence occurs when a system displays behavior that would not be expected given the properties of its constituent parts,” Gadzikwa said. “Such surprising behavior, which no one can yet explain, is exciting to observe because it suggests we are on the verge of discovering something that could transform how chemists think about reactions in confined spaces.”

Raj Kumar Pal

Assistant professor in the Alan Levin Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering, Carl R. Ice College of Engineering

AREA OF STUDY: Elastic wave energy trafast

AWARD: $504,000 NSF CAREER award

PROJECT TITLE: “Guiding and confining nonlinear elastic waves in moiré metastructures”

PROJECT DESCRIPTION: Pal’s research will address a major challenge of wind energy generation. He will explore new architected metamaterials to provide vibration protection of large-capacity wind turbine blades. The project will focus on the application of these engineered materials, called moiré metastructures, which are able to guide and confine elastic wave energy in a new, innovative way.

FROM THE RESEARCHER: “The project will train and expose our graduate and undergraduate students to cutting-edge research in vibrations, support international study exchange with our collaborators in France and result in novel devices for wave control,” Pal said.