Seven UMass Amherst Faculty Members Receive NSF CAREER Awards in 2021-22 Academic Year

Over the course of the 2021-22 academic year, seven faculty members across the UMass Amherst campus have been named the recipients of National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER awards.

The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program is a foundation-wide activity that offers the National Science Foundation's most prestigious awards in support of early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization.

Manning College of Information and Computer Sciences

Manning College of Information and Computer Sciences (CICS) professors Jie Xiong and Hamed Zamani have been awarded CAREER grants from the National Science Foundation for their work on long-range wireless sensing and the development of search engines that work on a conversational model, respectively. This brings the cumulative number of CAREER awards for CICS to 34.

NEWS Jie Xiong
Jie Xiong

Xiong, whose award totaled $621,984 is focusing on the improvement of a ubiquitous technology in daily life—sensors, which are embedded in a diverse range of systems such as smartphones, wearables, gaming devices, medical equipment and automobiles. Wireless sensing, an emerging alternative to conventional sensors, uses wireless signals to sense human beings and the surrounding environment using contact-free and sensor-free methods, which can be especially beneficial for pandemic and disaster response. The technology also promises to benefit a large spectrum of disciplines including elderly care, human-computer interaction and environment monitoring.

Xiong's project aims to develop fundamental theories to help people understand the underlying mechanism of long-range wireless sensing, and to apply those theories to overcome the limitations of the field, moving wide-area wireless sensing close to widespread adoption.

“I am aiming to revolutionize wireless sensing and enable many new sensing applications,” explains Xiong. “These applications could range from soil moisture sensing for water conservation to the detection of disaster survivors—even if they are in a coma—through long-range, through-wall respiration sensing."

NEWS Hamed Zamani
Hamed Zamani

Zamani, who is an expert in information retrieval, search engines and machine learning, was awarded $570,863 to develop a next-generation, conversational search engine. While current search engines work on a query-response paradigm, where, for example you search “best pizza in Amherst, Massachusetts” and then wade through more than six-million results, a conversational search engine might ask a series of clarifying questions to arrive at a curated selection of results.

In particular, Zamani will work on developing new theories and models that can help advance the field of conversational information retrieval.

College of Natural Sciences 

The College of Natural Science (CNS) has been awarded three CAREER grants during this cycle, bringing the total number to 60.


NEWS Owen Gwilliam
Owen Gwilliam

Owen Gwilliam, in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, has been awarded $546,061 for his research into various theories of higher algebra that occupy a point of intersection between math and physics. In particular, higher algebra has enlarged quantum field theory, which plays an active role in everything from particle theory to condensed matter physics.

Recently, the exchange between physics and math has yielded a new tool, called “factorization algebras.”

“Mathematics and physics have engaged in a long dialogue for centuries,” says Gwilliam, “starting with Newton's invention of calculus and its applications to gravity. The rise of quantum field theory in the twentieth century has added a new topic for avid conversation. My research involves exploring how recent mathematical innovations from higher algebra clarify aspects of quantum field theory, with a special focus on the Kapustin-Witten theories (from physics) and their connection to the geometric Langlands program (in math).”

However, one difficulty in pursuing interdisciplinary is communicating across disciplinary boundaries. A key component of Gwilliam’s project is to create chances for researchers at all levels to become fluent in speaking to both disciplines and, moreover, to build direct personal bridges. At the graduate and postdoctoral level, the project will run annual summer schools for both mathematicians and theoretical physicists, focused on topics of mutual interest. In addition, each academic year, it will produce high-quality, online masterclasses by experts about such topics, with lecture notes and exercises. Finally, the project will support summer research for undergraduates, tackling problems between mathematics and physics, from the University of Massachusetts and nearby Five Colleges.

NEWS Marc Keiluweit
Marc Keiluweit

Soil scientist Marco Keiluweit, of the Stockbridge School of Agriculture, has been awarded $468,283 to better understand how the complex science of how soils store carbon. Soils store more than twice as much carbon as the atmosphere and biosphere combined, and more than 90% of this soil carbon is stored in organic compounds intimately associated with reactive minerals. Such mineral-organic associations (MOAs) can protect carbon compounds against microbial or enzymatic attack for centuries to millennia. However, plant roots and associated microbes in the rhizosphere have a well-known ability to transform minerals through dissolution and exchange reactions. Yet, the effect that roots and microbes have on the MOAs remains poorly understood.

Keiluweit’s overall objective is to develop a mechanistic understanding of the dynamics and vulnerability of MOAs in the rhizosphere and to train diverse, creative and technically skilled environmental scientists. Keiluweit’s team will launch a collaboration with Holyoke Community College to increase representation of low-income and minority students in UMass's environmental science degree program and create a new course incorporating Design Thinking approaches in order to provide graduate students and postdocs with the creative problem-solving and collaborative skills urgently needed to solve the complex environmental challenges facing society today.


NEWS Lillian Fritz-Laylin
 Lillian Fritz-Laylin

Lillian Fritz-Laylin, an evolutionary cell biologist, has been awarded $1,050,000 to investigate a fungus, known as B. dendrobatidis, that is decimating hundreds of amphibian species around the world. It seems that the fungus interacts with the mucus membrane that coats many amphibians, but how, exactly, is unknown.

“The ultimate goal of this project,” says Fritz-Laylin, “is to determine how B. dendrobatidis responds to exposure to molecules found in amphibian mucus. Establishing the molecular mechanism by which mucus induces changes in B. dendrobatidis may be used to develop remediation strategies to reverse the decline in amphibians caused by B. dendrobatidis infection.

Part of Fritz-Laylin’s work will involve creating a hands-on laboratory course will be developed for approximately 24 students per year for the duration of the project. These students will gain practical experience in designing, executing and interpreting the results of their own experiments, preparing them to participate in the STEM workforce. The development, evaluation and dissemination of a modular laboratory course framework will allow additional University of Massachusetts Amherst faculty, as well as extra-mural faculty, to develop new courses and/or quickly revise existing courses to improve scientific reasoning in undergraduate students. Finally, the adaptation of these materials into a workshop for middle school girls will broaden participation in STEM fields.

College of Engineering

Chemical engineering assistant professors Peng Bai and Ashish Kulkarni have each been awarded prestigious five-year grants through the National Science Foundation Early Career Development (CAREER) Program. Bai and Kulkarni's CAREER awards are for $551,035 and $637,359, respectively.


NEWS Ashish Kulkarni
Ashish Kulkarni

Kulkarni’s research combines nanotechnology, engineering and immunobiology to create nanoscale technologies that stimulate the immune system in specific ways to treat diseases and improve human health. He will use the CAREER grant to focus his research on the relationship between nanomaterials and inflammasome activation.

“One of the biggest questions in the field of immunoengineering today is how do these nanomaterials interact with immune cells, and what kind of interactions do they create, whether positive or unwanted?” Kulkarni says. “This project is about understanding and mapping these interactions to develop guidelines for future generations of nanomaterials that are more effective and beneficial.”

“The proposed study will enhance our fundamental understanding of nanomaterial-immune cell interactions and enable us to develop novel approaches that can effectively target inflammasomes to treat chronic diseases, substantially contributing to improving human health and quality of life,” Kulkarni says.


NEWS Peng Bai
Peng Bai

Bai’s research focuses on developing molecular simulation and first-principles methods to study separation, energy conversion and storage in complex materials systems.

“Millions of tons of alcohols and carboxylic acids, used to create polymers, food additives, solvents, and pharmaceuticals, are produced industrially via catalytic carbonylation every year,” Bai says. “Because this process makes use of expensive rare-metal catalysts and requires corrosive chemical agents to promote the desired reactions, the result is stringent and costly reactor designs, complex catalyst recycling schemes, and environmentally unfriendly waste streams.”

With the CAREER grant, Bai will develop computer models to discover effective porous solid-acid catalysts as a technologically and environmentally appealing alternative.

Faculty in the College of Engineering have been awarded 38 NSF CAREER awards since the award's inception in 1995. With Bai and Kulkarni's awards, all five current chemical engineering assistant professors in the College of Engineering have now received an NSF CAREER award.