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Faculty members get career development grants from NSF

Spectrum Volume 17 Issue 37 - July 27, 1995

Five young Virginia Tech faculty members have received the prestigious National Science Foundation's (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grants, given to support quality research and education. Recipients are George Filz and Nancy Love of civil engineering, Guo-Quan Lu in materials science and engineering, Brian Tissue, chemistry, and Clara Chan, mathematics.

NSF established the CAREER program in 1994 after the agency terminated four previous award programs and combined their objectives into this new honor.

The CAREER program is a $50,000-per-year award for four years. An associate industry matching program could raise the total award amount to $400,000.

Filz, a member of the faculty since 1992, concentrates in the geotechnical area of civil engineering. Love, who joined the faculty in 1994, specializes in the environmental aspects of the discipline.

Filz' research concerns the use of bentonite, a highly plastic, swelling clay, in cutoff walls used as barriers to the flow of ground water. These bentonite walls are used widely by the construction industry at contaminated sites and in dams and dam foundations.

"Even though they are widely used, the state of the practice is that soil-bentonite cut-off walls are designed and built without a fundamental understanding of the mechanics of the interaction between the trench backfill and the adjacent ground. The consequences...are that neither the hydraulic conductivity of the backfill nor the settlement of the adjacent ground can be accurately predicted," Filz said. By establishing a sound theoretical basis for the design of these cutoff walls, Filz will be addressing environmental concerns as well.

NSF's sponsorship of Love's work is also environmentally related. She will investigate three toxic materials that are common pollutants in many industrial-waste streams. Existing processes reduce the concentration of these compounds to relatively low levels, but some fraction may be removed by being stripped into the atmosphere, and the small residual concentrations that do remain might still impose a toxic effect on streams, Love said. She is proposing to use a single-sludge biological process as a cost-effective, alternative treatment system for wastewaters. Love plans to work with the Center for Biotechnology at Virginia Tech, combining wastewater engineering with microbiology. She also plans to develop a summer workshop for elementary-school teachers to illustrate how science and engineering may be linked to study and protect the environment.

Tissue, who graduated from Johns Hopkins University (B.A., 1983) and the University of Wisconsin (Ph.D., 1988), has been a faculty member in the university's chemistry department since 1993. He is using lasers to study the surface chemistry of new phosphor materials. The materials might have applications in the next generation of information displays--such as flat-panel television and computer screens and projection devices.

"The display screens of the future will require much different materials than today's TV tubes," he said. New phosphor materials with very small particle diameters have advantages over conventional materials, but their properties are also more sensitive to surface chemistry. "I'm trying to understand that surface chemistry in order to improve energy efficiency," Tissue said.

The NSF grant also supports Tissue's instructional program. He is using computer technology and the Internet to integrate multimedia tutorials into the courses he teaches. Students access the material to prepare for laboratory sessions and as refreshers or study aids. The chemistry teaching materials are available to Virginia Tech students and outside users via the World Wide Web at http//www.chem.vt.edu.

Lu, who joined the university in 1992, received his doctorate from Harvard in applied physics and materials science. His primary research focus is in processing and characterization of electronic materials.

With his NSF funding, he will develop experimental techniques for analyzing deformation and densification behavior of powdered materials as they are consolidated into solid forms. The research findings will be useful in the manufacturing of advanced structural and functional materials.

Lu, who earlier this year won the College of Engineering Sporn Award for excellence in undergraduate teaching, also plans to use the NSF support to develop new courses, involve undergraduate students in laboratory research, and continuously improve his teaching skills. He wants to "produce graduates who are not limited to a specific job function, but who are equipped to learn new intellectual skills and knowledge and make technology innovations that will serve our societal needs and national goals."

Chan earned her Ph.D. from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1992. Her research will refine her study of polytopes--the arrangements of vertices, edges, faces, and higher-dimensional analogues that determine configurations ranging from tinkertoy constructions to geodesic domes. She treats the pieces of a polytope as algebraic symbols and uses the machinery of modern algebraic geometry to analyze the resulting combinations of numerical characters. By comparing different algebraic interpretations of a polytope, she hopes to extract information about how it is put together. Such information is useful for analyzing algorithms--for optimization in operations research, for example.

In her instructional program, Chan plans to incorporate technology into more undergraduate mathematics-education courses, as is already being done in calculus. Course work will also emphasize the relevance of mathematics to the world in general.

"We live in a technological age, in every sense," she says. "It is the responsibility of math educators to incorporate an appreciation and understanding of what this means into standard curriculum, not only to impress upon students the great benefits of using computers, but to help them better understand mathematics." In addition to the courses she teaches, she will develop materials for other courses.