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Three Faculty Members Receive National Science Foundation CAREER Awards

Release Date: January 31, 2011

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Two University at Buffalo physicists and one engineer have received the National Science Foundation's (NSF) most prestigious award for junior investigators, bringing nearly $1.5 million in new research dollars to Buffalo.

The NSF CAREER award recognizes and supports the activities of early-career faculty members who are outstanding teachers and researchers. Peihong Zhang and Wenjun Zheng, assistant professors of physics, received awards in 2010. Sheldon Park, an assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering, will receive funding starting this February.

"The CAREER award is a major honor that recognizes the excellent research and teaching these young faculty members have done to date," said Alexander Cartwright, UB vice president for research. "The recognition and funding will position professors Park, Zhang and Zheng for further success in their research and education careers. The award process is extremely competitive, and having three awardees this year demonstrates the excellent quality of our recent hires."

Zhang, an assistant professor of physics, is using $450,000 from the NSF to support computational and theoretical research that will enable more accurate and efficient calculations of how semiconductors and nanostructures produce and interact with light.

This work will help the scientific community better understand the fundamental properties of materials and exploit their full potential in energy-related applications such as solar cells and solid-state lighting.

To increase the reach of his work, Zhang plans to create a web-based, interactive tool that will enable researchers to visualize various solid-state properties. This project will be incorporated into the successful Physics and Art project in the Department of Physics at UB, which targets both physics students and the general public to promote physics education.

Zheng is receiving $610,000 from the NSF to support research on kinesins, a class of molecular motors whose movements help drive cellular functions including cellular divisions and intracellular transport. Just several nanometers across, kinesins are the smallest-known molecular motors.

Zheng will use novel computer modeling techniques to investigate important movements of kinesins, working with a team of experts to test modeling predictions using state-of-the-art experimental techniques. The goal is to create a powerful computational framework for efficient and realistic modeling of a variety of biomolecular systems. He will disseminate new computer modeling tools and results through an online database available to researchers around the world.

Park will use $400,000 from the NSF to engineer and study the characteristics of high-affinity, high-specificity peptide inhibitors of the Erk-2 kinase, which plays a role in cell development, proliferation and malignancies.

Park's research aims to design peptide and protein inhibitors that regulate kinase activity more effectively than small molecule drugs, reducing unwanted side effects and minimizing resistance to treatment. The ability to better target the activity of specific kinases should yield better therapeutics for genetic diseases caused by overactive kinases.

Park, Zheng and Zhang also will engage in a variety of education and outreach activities to raise awareness about their fields of inquiry and train a new generation of scientists. Projects include the creation of new college courses in the faculty members' areas of expertise; the development of training programs for high school students; and public presentations.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.

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