Logo: University of Southern California

Two Young Viterbi Professors Awarded Top U.S. Junior Faculty Honor in Science and Engineering

Pair receive awards from President at Washington D.C. ceremony
Eric Mankin
November 08, 2010 —

Michelle L. Povinelli and Andrea M. Armani have won the U.S. government’s highest honor for Armani&Povinelliscientists and engineers beginning their independent careers, the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE).

"For two of our faculty to receive these rewards in a single  year is extraordinary," said Dean Yannis C. Yortsos. "Michelle and Andrea join an exceptional group of young USC researchers who have received PECASE recognition."

The PECASE program was commissioned by President Bill Clinton to honor and support the extraordinary achievements of young professionals at the outset of their research careers in science and technology. According to the program's vision statement, the award initiative embodies the government’s prioritization of maintaining the United States’ global leadership position in science. Each PECASE award consists of a five-year series of $200,000 grants, for a total of $1 million.

"Science and technology have long been at the core of America’s economic strength and global leadership," President Barack Obama said in the Nov. 5 White House annoucement.  "I am confident that these individuals, who have shown such tremendous promise so early in their careers, will go on to make breakthroughs and discoveries that will continue to move our nation forward in the years ahead.”

The President recognized Armani and Povinelli in person along with their 83 fellow PECASE winners at a December 13 reception in Washington D.C.

December 13: Andrea Armani is immediately to the right of the President Obama in the first row; Michelle Povinelli is in the second row, fifth from the left.

Michelle L. Povinelli

Michelle Povinelli, an assistant professor in the Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering (EE) will use the award to study “Light Assisted Assembly and Reconfiguration of Complex Optical Materials Using Microphotonic Templates,” the proposal for which she was awarded a three-year $150,000 Army Research Office Young Investigator Award last year. Povinelli was recommended for the Presidential Award by her Army Research Office program manager through the Department of Defense; the White House’s National Science and Technology Council makes the final selection. The Army grant will be rolled into the presidential award.

The presidential award comes only a year after Povinelli won a five-year $400,000 Faculty Early Career Development Award from the National Science Foundation. CAREER awards are bestowed in recognition of exemplary research, leadership and education, and Povinelli’s winning proposal was entitled “Optical Forces in Integrated Microphotonic Devices.”

Povinelli was also this year selected as an outstanding innovator under 35 by MIT's Technology Review TR35 program.

“The awards are clearly a proof of Povinelli’s excellent research ideas and direction as well as her excellent accomplishments so far,” said Eun Sok Kim, professor and Electrophysics Chair of the Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering. “The research funds will be instrumental for her to lay down a solid foundation for her research programs, which we believe will be very impactful. We are proud of her, and have great confidence in her.”

Povinelli studies nanophotonics, or the interaction of light with nanostructured and microstructured materials. The grants will support her theoretical and experimental studies of silicon microphotonic devices, including microscale waveguides and photonic crystals. Povinelli says her work involves the close connection between science and technology; advances in fabrication and synthesis of nanostructured materials continuously suggest new scientific questions as well as new technological applications.

Graduate students and postdoctoral researchers are already on hand to carry out the work. Povinelli has recruited six Ph.D. candidates and two postdoctoral researchers since her arrival in August 2008, three of whom have already co-authored papers with her. Povinelli received a B.A. with honors in physics from the University of Chicago, an M. Phil. in physics from the University of Cambridge, and a Ph.D. in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She came to the Viterbi School from Stanford University, where she performed post-doctoral work in the Gintzon Laboratory. She holds the Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) program's Gabilan Assistant Professorship.

Andrea M. Armani

Andrea Armani, an assistant professor in the Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, will direct the majority of her PECASE funding to expand her research efforts into the emerging areas of nanomaterials and nanocomposites.

Specifically, she will focus on studying the mechanical response of polymer and nanocomposite thin films to different environmental changes at the nanoscale level. “This research will further improve our understanding of the mechanisms that result in these materials' degradation and their eventual failure," she said." These types of thin films are often applied as coatings on many common commercial items from aircraft to handheld electronics.”

"Andrea is an exceptional researcher who has assembled a remarkable team, which is creating a whole new family of sensors,” said Mork Family Department chair Theo Tsotsis. “Her energy and enthusiasm are an example to us all. On behalf of the Mork family Department, I offer my congratulations."

Armani will also be continuing work funded by her recent Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Award, developing an optical biosensor capable of detecting DNA and bacteria with high precision.

The overall research thrust of the Armani lab is the design, demonstration and optimization of novel optical devices for studying biological and chemical systems. Current research projects include ultra-sensitive detectors that have single molecule capabilities, as well as integrating such sensors into fluidic platforms. Applications include improving existing sensor systems for healthcare diagnostics and exploring fundamental biological processes.

Armani, who last year was chosen by MIT's Technology Review for their TR35 group of the most outstanding innovators under the age of 35, is the first holder of the Fluor Early Career Chair of Engineering in her department. Other recent honors include her designation as a Visiting Lecturer by SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics; she also won a SPIE Photonics West/BiOS Young Investigator Award, and a Congressionally-directed Medical Research Program Young Investigator Award, and is the recipient of a USC Mellon Mentoring Award

Armani received her B.A. in physics from the University of Chicago (2001) and her Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology in applied physics with a minor in biology (2007). From 2006-2008, she was the Clare Boothe Luce Post-doctoral Fellow in chemical engineering and biology.