Three UCSC faculty win prestigious NSF CAREER awards

Kasia Jankiewicz
Timothy Johnstone
Tyler Sorensen

Three UC Santa Cruz faculty members have received Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Awards from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to support their research and education activities. They are Kasia Jankiewicz, assistant professor of mathematics; Timothy Johnstone, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry; and Tyler Sorensen, assistant professor of computer science and engineering.

The CAREER Awards are NSF's most prestigious awards in support of early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. The awards provide funding for five years to support research, education, and outreach activities.

Johnstone received a $770,000 grant to support his work on novel chemical bonds involving heavy elements. Chemical bonding is the bedrock of the understanding of chemistry, and the discovery of new types of bonds opens access to new, often unexpected types of chemical compounds and reactivity.

“My research focuses on the discovery of new types of highly reactive chemical bonds between elements that are readily abundant on Earth,” Johnstone explained. “The new bonds can then be used to make molecules that sustainably perform difficult chemical reactions that have previously required rare precious metals. I am also committed to better understanding the needs of chemistry students that transfer into four-year university programs from the community college system.”

The educational component of Johnstone’s project will focus on understanding whether chemical misconceptions, which play a role in the learning of all chemistry students, differ between transfer students and non-transfer students. The project will also test the efficacy of active-learning interventions developed to specifically target these misconceptions.

Jankiewicz received a $550,000 award to support her team’s research in geometry and topology. “We will be conducting research in the area of geometric group theory, which studies the connection between the geometry of an object and the algebraic and dynamical properties of its symmetries,” she said.

The project will involve studying symmetries of combinatorial objects such as trees (collections of nodes and edges, each connecting a pair of nodes, with no closed loops) and polyhedral complexes (which can be thought of as shapes built out of cubes, tetrahedra, or other polyhedral blocks).

The award will also support an initiative on “Women in Groups, Geometry, and Dynamics,” within which Jankiewicz will organize workshops facilitating collaborative learning and research experience for early-career women researchers. In addition, the grant will fund an invited speaker series at UC Santa Cruz, which will expose students to various careers of mathematicians in business, industry, and government.

Sorensen received a $550,000 grant to support his research into improving the collaborative power between different types of specialized processors, with the goal of enhancing the overall safety and efficiency of the systems those processors run. Devices such as phones, tablets, and the computers within cars use multiple processors to carry out the intensive computation required for image processing or speech recognition. While many researchers focus on advancing the specific capabilities of individual processors, Sorensen’s project focuses on developing the logical frameworks and mathematical models required to enable diverse processors to work together.

The educational component of his project surrounds equitable educational materials for the teaching of graphical processing unit (GPU) programming. Programming GPUs, which form the backbone of many of the advancements in today’s technology, require expensive computers that are often not accessible to many students. Sorensen wants to rethink the educational framework to make it possible to learn how to program GPUs on cheaper devices.

“Programming GPUs is really tied to very expensive machines, which shuts off educational access except for well-off students,” Sorensen said. “So instead, we're looking at new GPU programming frameworks that are available on any commodity desktop and laptop – but because they’re not as powerful, they’re going to be harder to program and understand. We're really going to rethink how we teach GPUs.”