From the science of taste to transistor technology to understanding plate tectonics and volcanoes, the funded projects will address issues of societal importance

Release Date: September 28, 2020

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Three University at Buffalo researchers have received the National Science Foundation’s CAREER award, one of the nation’s most prestigious honors for early-career scientists and engineers.

CAREER grants provide investigators with funding to conduct research and to develop educational programming in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) for K-12 students, university students and members of the public.

UB’s 2020 recipients are Margarete Jadamec, PhD, in UB’s Department of Geology and the Institute for Computational and Data Sciences; Huamin Li, PhD, in UB’s Department of Electrical Engineering; and Ann-Marie Torregrossa, PhD, in UB’s Department of Psychology.

Their projects will focus, respectively, on plate tectonics in the Pacific Rim of Fire; 2D materials for novel transistors; and the science of taste and how mammals make decisions about what to eat.

“Our early-career faculty are conducting groundbreaking research to understand and solve problems that affect people around the world. These researchers are also investing time and energy in developing programs and community partnerships that engage students of all ages in science and engineering, with the goal of inspiring a new generation of diverse students to pursue careers in STEM,” says Venu Govindaraju, PhD, UB vice president for research and economic development. “The UB community is proud of these tremendous accomplishments.”

More information on UB’s 2020 CAREER award recipients:

Margarete Jadamec, PhD

Associate Professor of Geology, UB College of Arts and Sciences
Core Faculty Member, Institute for Computational and Data Sciences at UB

Award amount: $497,920

Portrait of Margarete Jadamec.

Jadamec will construct high-resolution 3D models to simulate the forces governing plate tectonics in the Pacific Rim of Fire. The Rim of Fire consists of a series of subduction zone faults that form a rough horseshoe-shaped zone along the edges of the Pacific Ocean, affecting the volcanic and seismic hazards of major population centers in numerous countries.

Plate tectonic theory predicts that in subduction zones, where the Earth’s tectonic plates collide and denser plates descend into the Earth’s mantle, arc volcanoes should occur on the Earth’s surface directly above the downgoing plate. However, along the Rim of Fire, arc volcanoes also occur on the sides of subduction zones, a phenomenon that cannot be explained by a 2D application of plate tectonic theory.

Jadamec’s project will use data-driven model design to produce high-fidelity models of the Rim of Fire, enabling her team to test a new hypothesis for the physical mechanism generating subduction-edge volcanoes. The models will also examine outstanding questions in plate tectonics in terms of how coupled the Earth’s plates are to the underlying upper mantle. The numerical simulations will be run on tens of thousands of computing cores and use 3D virtual reality to interactively explore the data.  

Jadamec will develop a suite of teaching modules at UB to facilitate experiential learning through the incorporation of numerical simulations and 3D virtual reality. Jadamec will also partner with the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Illinois, to produce 3D visualizations of Rim of Fire subduction zones, enabling people to explore plate boundaries through virtual voyages in planetariums.

Huamin Li, PhD

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

Portrait of Huamin Li.

Li will investigate the use of 2D materials such as graphene and monochalcogenides in next-generation transistors that demonstrate rapid switching speeds and low energy consumption.

Such technologies are of great interest, as they hold promise for overcoming certain limitations that may prevent further miniaturization of conventional transistors.

Li’s team will combine theoretical research with experiments to learn about the properties of the 2D materials and use them to build a prototypical transistor.

The project explores the untapped potential of such atomically-thin materials, and could open the door to the development of energy-efficient nanoelectronic devices. A better understanding of the 2D materials that Li is studying could also lead to advancements in quantum research and development, he says.

With the support of his CAREER award, Li will also participate in existing programs and develop new activities that seek to inspire the next generation of students to pursue careers in engineering. This will include working with UB and community partners to create educational activities that focus on nanoscience and nanotechnology.

Ann-Marie Torregrossa, PhD

Assistant Professor of Psychology, UB College of Arts and Sciences
Associate Director, Center for Ingestive Behavior Research at UB

Award amount: $949,832

Portrait of Ann-Marie Torregrossa.

Torregrossa will study how animals make decisions about which foods are safe to eat.

One theory is that animals acquire this knowledge through a process of trial and error, in which they learn to identify, by memory, plants that are toxic or okay to consume.

Torregrossa is studying how a different mechanism may aid decision-making. Her past work has shown that changes in diet can alter the constellation of proteins found in saliva, and that this can modulate how a food tastes. She is interested in learning more about how this may act as a signal, helping animals decide whether a food is safe. After repeated exposure, it’s possible that a certain plant just doesn’t taste as bad anymore, Torregrossa says.

Her CAREER research will explore whether such changes in taste are specific to a single food, or more generalized: When repeated exposure to a bitter compound alters an animal’s salivary proteins and sense of taste, does the animal become more tolerant of that compound alone, or also to other chemically similar compounds — including ones that may be toxic?

Understanding dietary decision-making could help scientists solve problems in nutrition, medical compliance and other fields.

Undergraduates will contribute to the study through a course that Torregrossa is developing as part of her CAREER-funded project. The class will provide underrepresented students with hands-on training in behavioral neuroscience research techniques, building skills that will help them compete for research positions in scientific laboratories.

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