Two University assistant professors received one of the most prestigious awards for an early-career researcher in science, mathematics or economics when they were named 2020 Sloan Research Fellows last month.
As part of the fellowship, Assistant Professor of Chemistry Ou Chen and Assistant Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Emilia Huerta-Sanchez will each receive an unrestricted $75,000 grant to advance their research over a two-year period. They are two of 126 researchers who received the award this year.
“The hope is that every year, … we’re able to push forward the careers of 126 really bright, promising young scientists, mathematicians and economists, and in doing that, help advance those fields more generally,” said President of the Sloan Foundation Adam Falk. “By helping people in this point in their careers, … we could really have an impact that could last for decades.”
“I feel so honored to receive this award,” Chen said. The fellowship funding lasts “for only two years, but … you’re going to be named a Sloan Research Fellow for the rest of your career.”
“It was a very happy reaction,” Huerta-Sanchez said. “Every time you get an award, obviously it feels nice. It feels like all the hard work that you’ve done is being recognized.”
Chen’s research focuses on the study and development of nanocrystals and nanomaterials. “There’s a lot of fantastic properties that can be generated when you bring a material size down to the nanoscale” and change its physical, chemical and optical properties, Chen said. These properties cannot be observed in a larger scale. One of Chen’s main areas of research involves quantum dots — semiconductive materials with enhanced optical properties that are used in digital screens for better color saturation and quality.
Chen’s proposal for the fellowship revolved around the macroscopic applications of nanomaterials. He is developing ways to precisely control the position and orientation of nanocrystals and “link them back to macroscale functional materials” for everyday use, including solar cells, digital displays and biomedical devices.
Huerta-Sanchez’s research focuses on the genetic evolution of humans and the development of regional adaptations. She was always interested in the intersection of mathematics and biology, but she further became interested in stochastic, or random, processes and genetics as a postdoctoral student in 2009. At that time, scientists were newly able to sequence entire genomes for cheaper than ever before, she explained. Huerta-Sanchez began analyzing this new data, where she was interested in questions related to human evolution. Specifically, she looked into the genetic basis of the adaptations in Tibetans living in high altitudes that allow them to carry more oxygen in their blood without having to produce more hemoglobin, the protein responsible for delivering oxygen throughout the body.
Recently, Huerta-Sanchez has focused on whether genetic variations in ancient populations were beneficial or deleterious to their survival, as well as the genetic impacts of population mixing and the relationships between ancient and present-day populations. She uses this understanding to make “better inferences about the genetic basis of human disease” that disproportionately affect different populations.
To be eligible for the Sloan Research Fellowship, applicants must be untenured faculty at a post-secondary institution in the United States or Canada, Falk said. They also must have a teaching role at the institution and must be actively conducting research in one of eight categories, including physics, computer science and neuroscience.
Committees of experts in each of the categories select the recipients of the fellowship. “We’d like them to identify the most promising people in their fields. That’s going to mean one thing in economics and something else in mathematics, but what we’re really looking for them to identify (are) the people … who they think will have a really great impact during the entirety of their careers,” Falk said.
In the history of the award, 50 Sloan Research Fellows have been awarded a Nobel Prize, including three last year, Falk added.
The fellowship is very competitive, Falk said. In 2020, 1,182 people applied for the Sloan Fellowship, wrote Nate Williams, communications manager at the Sloan Foundation, in an email to The Herald.
Chen and Huerta-Sanchez join 67 other Brown University faculty who have won the award since 1955, the year the fellowship was founded, including four professors who won the award last year, The Herald previously reported.
Chen plans to use the grant to support his students and further his research. “This is an unrestricted fund, so I can really use this money to do something more high-risk, to explore something that might fail,” Chen said. But if this grant does lead to a new opportunity, “that seed could generate a huge impact or (could) open up more interesting follow-up research (in) a new direction.”
Huerta-Sanchez hasn’t given too much thought to what she will use the grant for. “It definitely facilitates new lines of inquiry, or I can use it on what I would consider risky projects” with the chance for high reward, she said. “I think it’s going to lead to very exciting work.”
Colleagues held high praise for the award recipients.
Huerta-Sanchez’s “work is an exciting mix of questions on human evolution, high throughput genomics and sophisticated computational analyses,” wrote Chair of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Professor of Natural History and Biology David Rand in an email to The Herald. “Her work provides a look back in time at the genetic and evolutionary events that have contributed to the emergence of modern humans. We are thrilled that Emilia has received this prestigious award and (excited) and fortunate to have her doing this new work at Brown.”
Shouheng Sun, professor of chemistry and engineering, wrote a recommendation letter for Chen for the fellowship. “From his independent research accomplishments, creativity and contribution to the nanomaterials field, I am convinced that he is on the track of becoming a leader in” this field, Sun wrote in an email to The Herald. “I congratulate Professor Chen for receiving this prestigious fellowship and am looking forward to reading more great news from his research endeavors at Brown.”