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Five NU Professors Receive CAREER Awards

Five young Northwestern University faculty members -- Steven Franconeri, Nicole Immorlica, Paul Leonardi, Adilson Motter and Hao Zhang -- have received the prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation.

The minimum CAREER award size is $400,000 for a five-year period.

Leonardi, assistant professor in the departments of communication studies and industrial engineering and management sciences, is the second faculty member from the School of Communication to receive this honor. He also holds the Allen K. and Johnnie Cordell Breed Junior Professor of Design in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Award recipients from the McCormick School are Immorlica, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences, and Zhang, assistant professor of biomedical engineering.

Award recipients from the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences are Franconeri, assistant professor of psychology, and Motter, associate professor of physics and astronomy.

The CAREER program offers the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious awards for new faculty members. The program recognizes and supports early career development of those teacher-scholars who are most likely to become the academic leaders of the 21st century. CAREER awardees are selected on the basis of creative career-development plans that effectively integrate research and education within the context of the mission of their respective institutions.

Steven Franconeri
Though seeing seems as simple as opening our eyes, understanding the visual world requires vast and complex mental machinery. In his laboratory, Franconeri focuses on how people group objects together, how we know whether one object is larger, brighter or farther to the right than another, and how we pay attention to multiple objects at once.

He received a CAREER award for his proposal, “Individuation in Visual Cognition.” The work will test a common limit found in our ability to deal with multiple objects: we typically can handle only about four objects at a time. The ubiquity of this limitation has led to its acceptance as a fundamental limit on visual processing, yet there is little understanding of why it happens. Franconeri will test the possibility that this limit stems from limited space within a cognitive “map” of attended locations in the world. Understanding this limit could lead to important changes in the ways we organize information in graphs and diagrams and may offer critical insight into our understanding of how children learn to count.

Nicole Immorlica
Her research interests lie in the structure, formation and design of social networks and problems at the intersection of game theory and algorithms.

Immorlica’s CAREER award is for her proposal “Networked Game Theory and Mechanism Design.” She will study social networks: how they form, evolve and impact behaviors like cooperation and coordination. Understanding the theoretical properties underlying networks and the incentives they introduce is fundamental to creating well-designed and functioning systems. Immorlica will create models that capture both the self-motivated interests of individuals in social networks as well as the randomness inherent in social interactions. She then will leverage those models to help social planners build more effective and efficient systems for networked societies. Outreach efforts will include summer schools that disseminate social network science in places including Iran, the West Bank and Uganda.

Paul Leonardi
Leonardi’s research and teaching focus on how organizations can employ advanced information technologies to more effectively create and share knowledge. He is particularly interested in how computationally sophisticated technologies enable new ways to access, store and share information; how new sources of information that such technologies provide change peoples’ work practices and communication partners; and how shifts in employees’ work and communication alter the nature of an organization’s expertise. His work on these topics cuts across the fields of organization studies, communication studies and information systems studies.

His CAREER award is for his proposal “The Role of Advanced Simulation Technologies in Innovation Processes.” Leonardi will conduct research into the role of computer-based simulations in managerial and policymaking decisions. The project will employ ethnographic methods to compare representations and understandings of simulation products, patterns in acceptance and use among technical and non-technical users, and associated changes in organizations’ formal and informal influence structures in the work of scientists, engineers, managers and policymakers in three different disciplines: automotive engineering, atmospheric research and urban planning.

Adilson Motter
Motter is an expert in complex networks. He studies how information and perturbations propagate through complex networks and how they shape the large-scale dynamics of systems as diverse as biochemical, technological and social networks. In particular, by understanding how failures propagate through a network, he has been able to devise interventions that can mitigate the effect of perturbations in ecological and biological networks. The latter led to the concept of synthetic rescue in network biology, which is a collective gene interaction effect where the failures of a gene can be compensated by the targeted inactivation of other genes in the network.

He received a CAREER award for his proposal “Rescue and Control of Complex Networks of Dynamical Systems: Nonlinear Dynamics Approaches and Applications to Biological and Physical Networks.” The project is focused on developing mathematical and computational methods to prevent large-scale failures in complex networks, such as power outages, extinction cascades, loss of biological function and cascading failures in general. The project includes education and outreach activities to be developed in partnership with Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, which will disseminate the research results to a large and diverse audience.

Hao Zhang
He is interested in developing novel optical, ultrasonic and electric imaging techniques in both microscopic and nanoscopic levels for applications in biomedicine.

His CAREER award is for his proposal “Functional Imaging to Prevent Blindness.” In this work, Zhang and his team will develop multimodal retinal imaging technology based on optical coherence tomography, fluorescence imaging and the unique photoacoustic ophthalmoscopy to detect early warnings of diabetic retinopathy and age-related macular degeneration (AMD). The multimodal retinal imaging system has the capabilities to detect minute variations in blood oxygenation in the ocular circulation and variations in retinal pigmentation; both are believed to be correlated with the early stages of diabetic retinopathy and AMD. Ultimately, Zhang hopes this technology could end up in clinics to benefit the large diabetic and aging population.