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NSF CAREER Awards

Support Diverse Research


UNL researchers are developing novel ideas to harness the sun, cure genetic diseases and prevent software glitches with support from National Science Foundation CAREER awards.

These five-year awards support research by junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholar through outstanding research, teaching and the integration of education and research. Recent UNL winners are tackling diverse projects.

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Harnessing the Sun

Jinsong Huang thinks solar energy devices will become so inexpensive and pliable that nearly any surface – from windows to clothing – will harness the sun. Scientists are working to replace today’s silicon-based solar cells with organic polymers, or plastics, which are cheaper and more flexible, but less energy efficient.

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With a $400,000 CAREER award, Huang, assistant professor of mechanical and materials engineering, is improving the polymer’s efficiency as a semiconductor. By inserting ultra-thin layers of ferroelectric polymers, inexpensive materials that hold large permanent electrical polarizations on each side, he’s able to increase a solar cell’s internal electric field. That, in turn, generates more electrical current.

Organic polymer solar cells’ low cost and increased pliability will lead to new applications and greatly expand the ability to capture the sun’s energy.


Tackling Software Glitches

Developing today’s complex computer software involves thousands of people working – sometimes at cross purposes – in numerous countries. Resolving inevitable glitches is expensive and Time-consuming. A $500,000 CAREER award supports Anita Sarma’s work to develop software to help programmers work more efficiently, which will reduce costs and software defects.

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Sarma, assistant professor of computer science and engineering, uses data-mining techniques to analyze the effects various tasks and file changes had on previous programming efforts. That information allows her to make predictions about future programming. She’ll use these predictions to develop software that can analyze, in real time, the current development situation and identify the best next task. So when a programmer finishes a task, the program analyzes what is happening and suggests tasks that avoid conflicting with others.

Sarma’s solution will be available as a plug-in for Eclipse, a software development program.


Unraveling Clues to Prevent Restenosis

Linxia Gu uses powerful computers to better understand the biological mechanism of restenosis, a debilitating and sometimes fatal complication of a common treatment for coronary heart disease and other conditions. Propping open clogged arteries using tiny mesh tubes called stents sometimes leads to strokes or heart attacks when vascular cells react by making new cells that restrict blood flow.

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With a $406,248 CAREER award, Gu, assistant professor of mechanical and materials engineering and a member of UNL’s Nebraska Center for Materials and Nanoscience, is building computer models to understand the changes cells undergo and how those changes relate to alterations in arterial tissue structures.

This knowledge will help researchers improve prevention and treatment options, and help manufacturers design better stents. The technique also could be used to interpret other clinical observations, such as aortic aneurysms and traumatic brain injuries.


Devising Gene Delivery Tools

Gene therapy holds tremendous potential, but it requires an effective, safe method of delivering genes to cells.

Angela Pannier, associate professor of biological systems engineering and a member of the Center for Nanohybrid Functional Materials, earned a $419,051 CAREER award to develop 3-D nanostructured surfaces to use as gene delivery tools. The surfaces have columns, and the spaces between columns can be loaded with DNA, similar to a toothbrush holding toothpaste. Touching the nanostructure to the cell unloads the DNA. She’s also designing nanostructured surfaces that alter cells to make them more receptive to receiving genes.

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This method allows cells to use genes without incorporating them into their chromosomes. Potential uses include reducing post-surgery inflammation, promoting bone integration after a hip implant and treating genetic diseases.


 Studying Coenzyme Q

Gilles Basset, associate professor of agronomy and horticulture, studies coenzyme Q, an elusive micronutrient found in nearly all organisms, including humans. This vital compound is so fragile that conventional research approaches can’t reveal many aspects of its production.

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With a $784,820 CAREER award, Basset, a member of UNL’s Center for Plant Science Innovation, is harnessing computer power to identify the genes involved in coenzyme Q synthesis. Using bioinformatic techniques, such as comparative genomic data mining, he looks for associations within the entire genetic makeup of different types of organisms. Organisms that synthesize coenzyme Q should have genes in common that are missing in those that don’t. Additional techniques further narrow the list of gene candidates by identifying similarities in how genes are expressed.

Basset’s research may lead to improving plant-based foods and human health.