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ONR’s 2012 Young Investigator Program Awards Three Viterbi Faculty

Alisa Gonzales
April 02, 2012 —

The Office of Naval Research (ONR) Young Investigator Program (YIP) awarded three faculty members in the Viterbi School of Engineering with prestigious three-year grants. Among this year’s awardees, assistant professors Andrea Hodge, Rahul Jain and Noah Malmstadt were each rewarded for their record of research excellence and aptitude as young investigators.

ONR’s Young Investigator Program seeks to fund tenure-track scientists and engineers who show extraordinary promise for producing creative research with the added intent of encouraging their teaching and research careers. This is a highly competitive program rather than a program which provides seed money to early career investigators. The standards that the evaluation committee holds applicants to is no less demanding than those of the ONR’s other funding mechanisms for mid-career and senior researchers; past performance and achievement are significant benchmarks, along with substantial institutional support and a meritorious proposal.

This award cycle resulted in pool of more than 350 proposals, a record number of applicants, which in turn resulted in the funding of 26 awards. Previous cycles have been equally competitive. Receipt of the esteemed YIP grant confers a great deal of honor upon the awardees in addition to providing funding for novel research. According to the ONR, “many YIP winners continue to engage in naval research beyond their award periods and their research careers often accelerate earning them opportunities and prominence in their respective fields.”

Viterbi’s Dean, Yannis C. Yortsos, emphasizes that this is the highest total nationwide. “We are very proud of Andrea Hodge, Rahul Jain and Noah Malmstadt for this wonderful distinction,” says Yortsos.

Andrea Hodge, assistant professor in the Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering and in the Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, was awarded funding for her proposal to investigate at the formation of new states of matter and interfaces, or surface areas, at the nanoscale. 

The nanoscale is conventionally understood to describe dimensions at the level of 1-100 nanometers. To put the scale into perspective, 100 nanometers is 1000 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair. When the thickness of materials at the nanoscale consists of only a few atomic layers, the atoms relative orientations can potentially create altered material states.

Investigating at the threshold of material property changes provides an opportunity to advance the understanding of these new types of materials, which are not found in nature. These new types of materials and interfaces have the potential to be tailored for practical applications. Understanding the formation process and their subsequent properties will help to develop a wide range of applications from protein-surface interactions in medical devices to radiation damage resistant materials.

Professor Hodge received her Ph.D. in materials science and engineering from Northwestern University and her B.S. in mechanical engineering from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She also currently holds the Philip and Cayley MacDonald Early Career Chair.

Assistant professor in the Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering, Rahul Jain, has been funded to develop optimal decision-making algorithms that have the potential for use in the field of robotics where increasingly there is a practical need to operate them autonomously.

Advancing designs of these new technologies always bring new challenges to be solved. The challenges in the development of the proposed research will be threefold. It will be essential to incorporate the need to choose the best course of action under a variety of immediate constraints, as well as anticipated risks, while taking into account the interactions of multiple agents within the system.

In the development of these algorithms, Jain will be looking at a variety of games and mathematical models of decision-making in order to address the identified challenges. One such model will make use of mathematical models called multi-armed bandits with the aim to incorporate simple online learning policies that are “regret-optimal”. Such models and algorithms allow agents to make optimal tradeoffs between exploring to learn, and exploiting what is already known.

There is a clear need to develop both theory and algorithms that successfully operate in a multi-agent world. Instruments employing this technology may take the form of platoons of under-water vehicles that cooperatively patrol sea-ways for mines or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that are becoming more commonplace as a means of reducing both casualties and cost.

Professor Jain received his Ph.D. in electrical engineering and computer sciences and an M.A. in statistics from UC Berkeley; an M.S. in electrical and computer engineering from Rice University; and a B.Tech in electrical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. He also holds a courtesy appointment with the Viterbi School's Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering.

Noah Malmstadt, an assistant professor in the Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, received funding for his proposed research to look at how the unusual conditions encountered in the deep sea environment can damage cell membranes and the health consequences that this damage has for divers who rely on diving gas at high pressure and oxygen concentration.

Divers working at these great depths and using the special breathing gas are subject to “hyperbaric oxygen toxicity”. There is an ongoing risk for divers to suffer from lung and central nervous system damage due to hyperbaric oxygen toxicity. Making sense of how cellular membranes react at the molecular level will play a significant role toward understanding the oxygen toxicity symptoms divers can experience.

One key aim of his research will be determining whether these effects result from the chemistry of oxygen under these conditions or are they a consequence of the high pressure itself.  Malmstadt's laboratory will use state-of-the-art technologies, technologies that the lab has developed over the last few years, for investigating membrane properties under a variety of hyperbaric conditions. The results of his research will contribute to advances in the next generation of diving technologies, will help minimize risks to divers and improve treatment options.

Professor Malmstadt received his Ph.D. in bioengineering in 2003 from the University of Washington and his B.S. in chemical engineering in 1997 from California Institute of Technology.

The ONR’s Young Investigators Program was introduced in 1985 to provide grants of $50,000 to each promising researcher. The program has since expanded and now provides awardees with up to $510,000 over a three year period. The Young Investigators Program funds proposals addressing naval-relevant research areas in science and technology.