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Four young Boston College scientists are among those honored this year by the Sloan Foundation
Each year 126 U.S. and Canadian scholars in the early stages of their careers are awarded Sloan fellowships, in recognition of work that shows “promise of making fundamental contributions to new knowledge.” The recipients—nearly all scientists, together with a few mathematicians and economists—receive $50,000 to help support their research at the university or institute where they are employed. In announcing the 2012 recipients, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation named an unprecedented four members of the Boston College faculty: Michelle Meyer (biology), Ying Ran (physics), Dunwei Wang (chemistry), and Liane Young (psychology). These scientists join 14 previous Sloan fellows at Boston College, including, most recently, Sara Cordes (psychology, 2010) and Kian Tan (chemistry, 2011).
Many early-career prizes are like “beauty awards,” says Larry McLaughlin, the University’s vice provost for research. “How beautiful is your CV, and have you worked with the right people?” The Sloan fellowships, he says, are based on the “actual work” junior faculty have accomplished. For a look at the ongoing work of the University’s new Sloan fellows, read on.
Biologist Michelle Meyer came to Boston College in 2010 from Yale University, where she was a post-doctoral fellow with a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biophysics from Caltech. Her research focuses on the biological molecule RNA—specifically, on the interaction between RNA and proteins, the workhorse molecules that play a part in virtually all bodily processes at the cellular level. Just 15 years ago, says Meyer, RNA was mainly thought of as a “messenger,” a molecule that transferred genetic instructions from DNA to other parts of a cell. More recently, researchers have learned that RNA also performs a complex role in regulating processes within cells, including not only the production of proteins—called gene expression—but also how much of a protein is made (a form of “resource prioritization,” Meyer says). It is now known that if RNA doesn’t function properly, a host of processes can go haywire within cells.
Meyer studies the RNA of bacteria, partly because, as she notes, the human body is mostly made up of such single-cell organisms (in fact, microbial cells outnumber human cells in the body by about 10 to one). She and her team are attempting to identify previously unknown strains of bacterial RNA in the body and to determine the proteins they control. Her work mines data recently assembled by the National Institutes of Health’s Human Microbiome Project, which sequenced the genomic DNA of bacteria taken from the healthy bodies of human volunteers. Within these DNA sequences, Meyer looks for specific patterns indicating that a functional RNA is encoded. While much of Meyer’s work involves computational analysis, she also performs laboratory experiments to examine the biological functions of the RNAs she finds spelled out genetically. These experiments involve synthesizing the RNAs and testing whether they bind to purified proteins in the test tube, as well as studying the RNAs while they are inside bacteria by modifying their genes. Meyer’s research is exploratory; ultimately, expanded knowledge of the linkages between RNA and proteins will lead to the design of drugs that, owing to a compatible molecular configuration, will bind to the RNA of harmful bacterial strains and incapacitate them, without disrupting beneficial bacteria.
Meyer and her team are also developing new RNA, in an effort to understand how RNA molecules with different physical structures perform similar biological functions. Meyer creates artificial environments in petri dishes and other media that force microorganisms to mutate and evolve rapidly in limited and specific ways. She hopes that by studying how RNA functions under varied cellular conditions she can better understand the factors driving natural evolution.
“What excites me the most about this work is the power of evolutionary forces and the incredible flexibility of RNA,” Meyer says. “There are many potential answers to the biological need to regulate gene expression, and nature has identified many of them. . . . I want to know, ‘how did nature solve this problem?'”
A physicist with a doctorate from MIT, Ying Ran studies the universe at the subatomic, or quantum, level, where strange effects are found that run counter to our common understanding of the physical world. At the subatomic level, the location and behavior of objects cannot be described concretely, and physicists must deal in probabilities.
Continuing an interest he pursued as a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, Ran, who joined the Boston College faculty in 2010, specializes in quantum condensed matter theory. He seeks to figure out how sub-atomic effects might be used to create super-materials, types of matter with properties not necessarily found in nature. For instance, Ran’s research probes the properties of theoretical materials that would conduct heat but not electricity, a combination of characteristics never seen before.
Ran works primarily in the realm of mathematics. Whiteboards covered in brightly colored equations line his office. Among his particular interests are “frustrated magnets.” In a conventional magnet, atoms are arranged in a square grid, as on a sheet of graph paper. With each atom aligned in orderly fashion, the magnetic poles point north-south in a well-defined pattern. But change the atomic structure of the magnet, make the squares of the graph into triangles, Ran says, and you confuse the magnetic fields. Some fields may point north, some south, and some may be rendered unpredictable.
Ran’s theoretical explorations could someday have practical applications—in the development of, say, superconductors that can be put to use in high-powered computers. Certain types of superconductors are valuable because electricity flows through them without resistance, making the computer both faster and more energy-efficient. But to function well superconductors have to be kept at temperatures in the vicinity of minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit. The kinds of theoretical materials Ran imagines could someday allow for room temperature superconductors.
With the funding from his Sloan fellowship, Ran says he intends to hire post-doctoral assistants to help with the mathematical testing of his ideas, including the study of “fractional quantum hall physics in solid state materials in the absence of magnetic field,” which, he says, is “a somewhat new direction” in condensed matter physics.
At the most fundamental level, Ran aims to understand what gives materials their unique combination of properties. “There are many, many motivations” for getting into science, he says, “but the central motivation is curiosity.”
Dunwei Wang earned his Ph.D. at Stanford and held a post-doctoral fellowship at Caltech before joining the Boston College chemistry department in 2007, where he researches the harvesting, storage, and transmission of renewable energies. Wang is developing new materials at nanoscale that he hopes will help break the hold of nonrenewable fossil fuel energy sources. In 2011, he won a National Science Foundation career award, which supports young scientists in their research.
One line of Wang’s work involves the design and fabrication of intricate silicon-based nanowire structures for collecting solar energy. His goal is to achieve a higher rate of energy collection than that of the more conventional crystalline silicon-based photovoltaic cells. In line with this project he is also developing silicon nano arrays to transport the captured energy more efficiently.
A second avenue of investigation underway in Wang’s Merkert Chemistry Center laboratory focuses on achieving cost-effective solar-powered “water splitting,” a process in which water molecules are separated into their components, oxygen and hydrogen, the latter being a clean-burning, sustainable fuel.
Wang described these efforts in the March 28 issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Using a process known as atomic layer deposition (ALD), he and his associates created molecule-thick wafers of hematite, a common form of iron oxide that is naturally sensitive to light. The wafers were placed in water, and the displacement of electrons when light hit the hematite caused hydrogen to separate from oxygen. The plentiful supply of hematite in nature and the encouraging results with the ALD wafer suggest further work in this vein.
Wang’s research also extends to development of a more efficient lithium-ion battery. Working at the nano scale, he is in the process of fabricating an anode, or electron receptor, with a recharge rate at least five times that of current lithium-ion anodes.
During his three years at Boston College, Wang has been awarded six patents for his solar water-splitting and battery designs. Typically, says Larry McLaughlin, a patent application makes several claims to unique technology, which are almost always rejected by the patent office for not being sufficiently different from existing designs. Applicants then re-apply, submitting arguments to defend their claims. Wang’s application for one of his anode designs made 22 claims and came back with 20 of them approved in the first round, McLaughlin says.
Liane Young first encountered the Trolley Problem as an undergraduate philosophy major at Harvard: A trolley is on course to hit five people. Would you throw a switch to put it on a track to strike only one person? The choice is easy for most individuals: Save the five and sacrifice the one. But what if the solution calls for a more personal intervention? Would you, say, push a man off a bridge into the trolley’s path, so that the trolley will stop before it hits the five people? For most individuals, the answer is no, even though the outcome, numerically, is the same.
Young seeks to understand the social and biological motivations behind moral judgment—what she calls moral intuition. It’s a quest that led her to cognitive psychology (her Ph.D. field at Harvard) and to neuroscience. She was a post-doctoral associate in MIT’s department of brain and cognitive sciences for three years before coming to Boston College in 2011.
Using magnetic technologies, Young examines what happens in the brain as people make moral decisions. She first stimulates a specific part of the brain using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). This temporarily and locally disrupts normal processes. Then she uses magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to track how this disruption affects the mental work of moral judgment. For example, in an experiment that Young conducted with researchers at MIT and published in April 2010 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, volunteer subjects received TMS to the brain’s right temporoparietal junction (RTPJ)—above and behind the right ear. They were then asked to evaluate a scenario with several variables: A woman puts a white powder in her friend’s coffee, for example, thinking it’s poison, and it turns out to be sugar; or it is poison, and it kills him.
The results suggested that disrupting the RTPJ caused subjects to judge the would-be poisoner less harshly if the powder was sugar and no harm was done. In other words, without a fully functioning RTPJ, test subjects tend to base their judgments more on outcomes than intentions. Although the RTPJ has emerged as an area of special interest in Young’s research, she and her team are investigating other parts of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, where MRI scans indicate some moral decision-making activity.
“For a while now, I’ve been really interested in moral intuitions and where they come from—and the extent to which people share these intuitions,” Young says. “When someone has a different set of intuitions, how do you know who’s right?”
Here and now
This year’s awarding of four Sloan early-career awards places Boston College in rare company. Only eight of the 51 schools with a 2012 Sloan fellow can claim more: Caltech, Harvard, UCLA, University of Chicago, Columbia, Stanford, University of Texas at Austin, and Yale.
Asked to explain Boston College’s showing, Arts and Sciences dean David Quigley notes that while the number of Sloan grants in 2012 “was dramatic, it wasn’t surprising. A policy of going after the best young scientists we can find has been a priority for some time, supported by tens of millions of dollars invested in facilities improvements, new faculty positions, and research support for those faculty.”
And, Quigley adds, the city of Boston holds intrinsic appeal. “People who study for doctorates tend to meet and marry other academic hard-chargers,” he says; the prospect of living in an “international center of technology, medicine, finance, law, and academe becomes a highly attractive selling point” in the midst of a two-person job search.
In the past 15 or so years, Quigley says, the departments of psychology, mathematics, and biology have “leaped into the big time, just as chemistry and physics did before them, and this has been noticed by ambitious young scientists.” He cites a recent search to fill two positions in mathematics. The University had assumed it would lose several prime candidates to other institutions and so made offers to four—and all four mathematicians accepted. “Fortunately,” Quigley says, “we had some retirements coming.”
J.M. Berger is a writer in the Boston area.