Three UMass Amherst Early Career Faculty Awarded 2019 Sloan Research Fellowships

‘Most promising researchers in their fields’ join elite group of international scholars
Barna Saha
Barna Saha

AMHERST, Mass. – The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation today announced its selection of 126 U.S. and Canadian researchers to receive the 2019 Sloan Research Fellowships, including three from the University of Massachusetts Amherst: computer scientist Barna Saha, physicist Romain Vasseur and bio-analytical chemist Mingxu You.

The fellowships, awarded yearly since 1955, recognize early career scholars whose achievements mark them as among the most promising researchers in their fields. Nominated by their fellow scientists, the winners are selected by independent panels of senior scholars on the basis of the candidate’s research accomplishments, creativity and potential to become a leader in his or her field. Sloan Foundation winners this year were drawn from 57 colleges and universities in the United States and Canada. Each receives a two-year, $70,000 fellowship to further their research.

Chemist You is developing tools based on DNA/RNA to allow fluorescence imaging of cells to study new areas in biology, particularly mechano-biology. Physicist Vasseur is studying non-equilibrium quantum states of matter, and theoretical computer scientist Saha is conducting research in theoretical computer science and the mathematical foundation of data science.

Saha explains that in her research, I try to determine the fastest possible algorithms for important optimization problems. I have managed to find significantly faster approximation algorithms for problems including shortest paths in graphs, matrix multiplication over certain algebraic structures, language edit distance and RNA folding.” These have applications in such areas as data cleaning, computing the secondary structure of the RNA molecule and genome comparison.

She says of this recognition, It is like a dream come true. I am truly honored to receive this award that many illustrious scientists have received in the past. This will be a great inspiration for me to continue and expand my research. The Sloan funding will enable me to pursue a wider range of such questions concerning efficiently approximating important optimization problems.

Her colleague, Neil Immerman adds, “The award of a Sloan research fellowship to Barna Saha for her groundbreaking work on the complexity of approximating fundamental optimization problems is fantastic and well deserved.

In You’s laboratory, he says, “Our overall aim is to develop next-generation platform for disease diagnostics and therapy. To realize this, we are interested in playing with Nature’s building blocks, DNA and RNA. Our current goal is to develop enabling tools to image previously invisible molecules or physical phenomena in living cells.”

He adds, The good part is that my work has been well recognized by my peers and that is quite important to me. I will use this award to advance my studies of DNA-based intercellular force sensors, which I think could potentially transform the way we understand how cells communicate with each other by mechanical signals."

Richard Vachet, head of the chemistry department, says of You, “Mingxu is an outstanding scientist, and it was only a matter of time before he was recognized for a fellowship like this. His research is truly transformative and will deepen our understanding of a variety of pressing biological problems by creating new sensors capable of measuring molecules in cells that are difficult or impossible to currently detect.”

Vasseur says of the recognition, “I feel honored to receive this prestigious award for my research in quantum statistical physics and condensed matter theory. I intend to use this award to continue exploring the rich behavior of many-body quantum systems far from thermal equilibrium. Exciting new frontiers have emerged over the past few years in the field of non-equilibrium quantum states of matter, and this Sloan fellowship will give me a great opportunity to explore new ideas in this broad direction. ”

His department head, Narayan Menon, says, “Romain is a leader in his generation of quantum condensed-matter theorists, and has already made a mark in understanding the role of criticality, disorder and topology in non-equilibrium quantum systems.

For the Sloan Foundation, president Adam F. Falk says, “Sloan research fellows are the best young scientists working today. Sloan fellows stand out for their creativity, for their hard work, for the importance of the issues they tackle, and the energy and innovation with which they tackle them. To be a Sloan fellow is to be in the vanguard of twenty-first century science.”

Daniel L. Goroff, director of the foundation’s fellowship program, says the awards are valued not only for their prestige, but because they offer a highly flexible source of research support. He adds, “What young researchers need is freedom to follow where their research leads. Find the brightest young minds and trust them to do what they do best. That is the Sloan research fellowship.”

Past Sloan fellows include important figures in science such as physicists Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann and game theorist John Nash. Forty-seven fellows have received a Nobel Prize. Based in New York City, the Sloan Foundation is a philanthropic, not-for-profit grant-making institution established in 1934 by Alfred Pritchard Sloan Jr., then president and chief executive officer of the General Motors Corporation.