Eight UB researchers awarded over $4.7 million in NSF CAREER awards

Projects to focus on AI algorithms, wastewater monitoring, air pollution, power grids and more

Release Date: June 24, 2024

Portrait of Venu Govindaraju.

Venu Govindaraju

“We take great pride in our eight faculty members who have been honored with this prestigious NSF award. Their exceptional research is integral to UB’s mission of fostering a better world for all. ”
Venu Govindaraju, vice president for research and economic development
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Eight University at Buffalo researchers — seven from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and one from the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences (SPPS) — have received National Science Foundation CAREER awards, one of the nation’s most prestigious honors for early-career engineers and scientists.

CAREER grants provide scholars with funding to conduct research and develop educational programming for K-12 students, university students and members of the public.

The SEAS recipients are Courtney Faber, Luis Herrera, Craig Snoeyink, Kang Sun, Yinyin Ye, Zhuoyue Zhao and Shaofeng Zou. The SPPS recipient is Jason Sprowl.

Together, the eight grantees will receive more than $4.7 million for projects that address pressing societal problems such as the need for more reliable artificial intelligence algorithms, preventing deaths from bacterial infections, mapping air pollution, and better understanding how glucose moves throughout the human body.

“We take great pride in our eight faculty members who have been honored with this prestigious NSF award,” said Venu Govindaraju, UB vice president for research and economic development. “Their exceptional research is integral to UB’s mission of fostering a better world for all.”

Among the support that awardees receive is guidance from UB’s Office of Research Advancement, which Chitra Rajan, associate vice president for research advancement, oversees. The office is managed by three co-directors – Joanna Tate, Maggie Shea and Menna Mbah – and provides a comprehensive suite of services, including proposal management, scientific editing, graphics, and help with non-technical parts of the proposal. 

These services, Rajan says, play a critical role in assisting faculty members submit high-quality proposals.

UB’s awardees include:  

Courtney Farber.

Courtney Faber, PhD
Assistant Professor of Engineering Education
School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
Award amount: $590,963

When a research team is made up of people with various engineering and education backgrounds, different ideas of what knowledge is and how it is acquired can hinder team members’ ability to work cohesively.

Having firsthand experience with this issue, Faber’s goal is to support engineering education researchers who find themselves in a similar situation. 

She will facilitate interdisciplinary work by identifying barriers that research teams face related to differences in thinking and creating ways to bring them to the surface for discussion before they become a problem.

“It’s important for the field of engineering education to be able to do this type of interdisciplinary work,” said Faber. “The problems we are trying to solve are very complex and require an interdisciplinary approach to make space for diversity of thinking.”

The project will involve observing research teams and conducting interviews to see how they function together, as well as how individual members think independently of the group.

Faber plans to develop trainings that new and established engineering education researchers can freely access.

She also hopes to create a tool that assists research groups in integrating approaches and goals that might otherwise be problematic for a group. The tool could be as simple as a one-page guide that provides questions to be considered throughout the research process to help identify where a team’s ideas might differ across various aspects of their research.  

Luis Herrera.

Luis Herrera, PhD
Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering
School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
Award amount: $500,000

Herrera’s research lies at the intersection of power electronics, power systems and control theory.

With this grant, he is developing different control methods to promote the wider adoption of direct current (DC) microgrids, which can run more efficiently than the more commonly used AC (alternating current) microgrids.

“Currently, DC electrical systems are primarily used in applications such as electric aircrafts, including the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, navy ships and data centers,” Herrera said. “However, most renewable energy sources are interfaced to the AC power grid through an intermediate DC stage.”

More networks operated through DC grids could significantly increase energy efficiency, reduce losses and improve the overall operation of electrical systems, he said.

This potential creates motivation for DC systems to be implemented in commonly used structures, such as residential and office buildings.

Graduate students will participate in a summer internship at the Air Force Research Laboratory through a partnership with the University of Dayton Research Institute.

Herrera also plans to create demonstrations of the research and present them to elementary, middle school and high school students, aiming to get students excited about STEM early in their academic careers.

Craig Snoeyink.

Craig Snoeyink, PhD
Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering
School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
Award amount: $581,088

Water filtration, whiskey distillation and blood-based diagnostics are just a few of the potential applications of dielectrophoretic molecular transport (DMT), a process that uses strong electric fields to push solutes out of water. This even includes those such as sugar and alcohol that do not have an electrical charge.

DMT is not used, however, due to the inaccuracy of current mathematical models.

With his grant, Snoeyink will develop and validate models for DMT for use in these applications. With one of the first accurate models of DMT, the process could be used, for example, to clean water as effectively as a water filter that never needs to be changed.

Snoeyink noted that point-of-care diagnostics are another significant application. 

“Down the line, we could use this technology to separate blood into components we want to test and stuff we don’t, making medical diagnostics cheaper and more sensitive,” Snoeyink said.

To help with testing and to offer students research opportunities that could propel them into graduate school, Snoeyink will teach a course for students to do research for the project as part of their curriculum. With Snoeyink’s guidance, students will run tests and create their own hypothesis. He hopes students will have papers based on their research that will bolster their graduate school applications.

Jason Sprowl.

Jason A. Sprowl, PhD
Assistant Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences
School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences
Award amount: $746,886

Sodium-glucose-linked transporters (SGLT) work like little doors in human cells that help bring in glucose, an important type of sugar that fuels the human body. Without the right amount of glucose, an individual can experience nutrient deficiencies and other health issues.

Unfortunately, cellular events that regulate SGLT activity are poorly understood. This is particularly true for tyrosine phosphorylation, a form of modification that can change protein structure and function.

For his research project Sprowl will study how tyrosine phosphorylation regulates changes in glucose movement into cells. He’ll use techniques like genetic manipulation and mass spectrometry to see how changing the tyrosine phosphorylation state of SLGTs affects its ability to let glucose into a cell. Finally, he will try to figure out which tyrosine kinases are responsible for phosphorylating SGLTs.

The project also includes several strategies for educational improvements at the middle school, high school and university levels. They include highlighting the biological importance of SGLTs, as well as the training and recruitment of junior scientists who will lead future research efforts. Collectively, the project is expected to impact many scientific disciplines, including molecular, cellular and systems biology.

To improve basic scientific knowledge, generate a passion for research and improve leadership capabilities in the field of biological sciences, Sprowl plans to establish an annual summer research position for underprivileged high school students. He also will work with middle school educators to increase recognition of reproducible and high-quality science and develop online content that will increase familiarity with transporter proteins.

Sun Kang.

Kang Sun, PhD
Assistant Professor of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering
School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
Award amount: $643,562

Sun has been interested in astronomy since he was a young child. He’s currently fascinated by the idea of pointing a space telescope toward the earth and imaging emission sources like celestial objects.

With the research grant, Sun will map global emission sources of gaseous air pollutants and greenhouse gases. Such gases are invisible to the human eye. While they can be detected by satellites, their images are naturally smeared due to wind dispersion.

“This research removes the smearing effect using a simple and elegant equation that originates from mass balance,” Sun said. “The results are timely and precise estimates of emissions that can inform policy and scientific studies.”

Currently, the two mainstream emission-estimating methods are bottom-up, accounting for activities on the ground and how they emit, and top-down, inferring emissions with observations, numerical models and complicated frameworks that are usually region-specific.

Sun’s method will fall within the scope of the latter but will work faster, be globally applicable and provide the high spatial resolutions that are more commonly achieved by the bottom-up method.

The results will resemble a space-telescope image, with significant emission sources standing out like galaxies and smaller sources, such as towns and power plants, sprinkled about like star clusters.

By the end of the five-year study, Sun hopes that students and educators may use his open-source algorithms to generate satellite-based concentration and emission maps on their personal computers.

Yinyin Ye.

Yinyin Ye, PhD
Assistant Professor of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering
School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
Award amount: $580,393

Bacterial infections cause more than 300,000 deaths annually in the United States. Many of these infections are triggered by  proteins secreted from bacteria in lipid-containing particles called extracellular vesicles (EV). These harmful materials move from the human body through feces into the sewer systems, where their fate is not fully understood.

With the research grant, Ye will monitor EV persistence and stability in wastewater and throughout the wastewater treatment process. She will analyze functions of environmental EV and what contents are packed in them. She will develop an  analysis method that integrates genome sequencing and proteomic analysis.

“If the vesicles preserve the function of virulence proteins in wastewater, we need to better understand the fate of the vesicles when they go through the treatment chain,” Ye said. “How are we able to minimize the health risks of vesicles after the treatment at the wastewater treatment plants? If they escape the treatment process and are still active, that can have certain health impacts.”

Ye’s project will focus on wastewater samples. However, these approaches can be applied to analyzing vesicles and their potential health risks in air dust, drinking water and rainwater, she said. Ultimately, this work will help determine what harmful materials — if any — are still present after the wastewater treatment process and how to remove them most effectively through disinfection.

She will also create hands-on activities to engage K-12 and undergraduate students in learning about wastewater microbiome analysis and microbial risk mitigation for public health and potentially build their interest in environmental engineering.

Zhoyue Zhao.

Zhuoyue Zhao, PhD
Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Engineering
School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
Award amount: $599,977

Today’s internet databases hold large volumes of data that are processed at higher speeds than ever before.

A new type of database system, hybrid transactional/analytical processing (HTAP), allows for real-time data analytics  on databases that undergo constant updates.

“While real-time data analytics can provide valuable insights for applications such as marketing, fraud detection, and supply chain analytics, it is increasingly hard to ensure a sufficiently low response time of query answering in existing HTAP systems,” Zhao said.

Approximate query processing (AQP) is a faster alternative that uses random sampling. However, many AQP prototypes and adopted systems sacrifice query efficiency or the ability to handle rapid updates correctly.

With the research grant, Zhao aims to support real-time data analytics on large and rapidly growing databases by enabling reliable AQP capabilities in HTAP systems, leading to increasingly demanding, real-time analytics applications.

“If this problem is solved, it will potentially make it possible to finally adopt AQP in many existing database systems and create sizable impacts on real-world data analytics applications,” Zhao explained.

Zhao will incorporate new material into existing UB undergraduate and graduate level courses, as well as offer tutorials and projects in various K-12 outreach and undergraduate experiential learning programs.  

Shaofeng Zou.

Shaofeng Zou, PhD
Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering
School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
Award amount: $520,000

Reinforcement learning (RL) is a type of machine learning that trains autonomous robots, self-driving cars and other intelligent agents to make sequential decisions while interacting with an environment.

Many RL approaches assume the learned policy will be deployed in the same — or similar — environment as the one it was trained in. In most cases, however, the simulated environment is vastly different from the real world — such as when a real-world environment is mobile while a simulated environment is stationary. These differences often lead to major disruptions in industries using RL, including health care, critical infrastructure, transportations systems, education and more.

Zou’s award will fund his work to develop RL algorithms that do not require excessive resources, and that will perform effectively under the most challenging conditions, including those outside of the training environment. According to Zou, the project could have a significant impact on both the theory and practice of sequential decision making associated with RL in special education, intelligent transportation systems, wireless communication networks, power systems and drone networks.

“The activities in this project will provide concrete principles and design guidelines to achieve robustness in the face of model uncertainty,” Zou said. “Advances in machine learning and data science will transform modern humanity across nearly every industry. They are already the main driver of emerging technologies. The overarching goal of my research is to make machine learning and data science provably competent.”

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