Six UB researchers receive prestigious early-career grants totaling nearly $3.5 million

Federally funded projects aim to advance research and education in climate science and mitigation, the design of ‘robot swarms,’ methods for computational modeling of solar energy materials, and more

Release Date: June 14, 2021


BUFFALO, N.Y. — Studying climate change while offering students paid internships to help local businesses reduce planet-warming emissions. Improving the reliability of web applications while introducing high school girls to the fundamentals of computing. Furthering knowledge of robot swarms, drones and computational materials science through research and education.

Six University at Buffalo scientists and engineers have received prestigious grants for early-career investigators through the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) or U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research to pursue projects in these areas. Together, the awards total nearly $3.5 million.

Five of these faculty members have received the NSF CAREER award: Alexey Akimov, PhD, in the Department of Chemistry; Souma Chowdhury, PhD, and Minghui Zheng, PhD, in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering; Elizabeth Thomas, PhD, in the Department of Geology; and Weihang Wang, PhD, in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering.

The CAREER grant is one of the nation’s most prestigious honors for early-career scientists and engineers. The program provides investigators with funding to conduct research and develop educational programming in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) for K-12 students, university students and members of the public.

Additionally, Frank Lagor, PhD, in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering has received funding through the U.S. Air Force Young Investigator Program, which supports the work of outstanding early-career researchers.

“We are proud of the important work that our early-career faculty members are doing in the midst of what has been an exceptionally difficult year,” says Venu Govindaraju, PhD, UB vice president for research and economic development. “The research projects, educational programs and community partnerships supported by these new awards will address pressing problems facing societies around the world today, and provide an array of valuable opportunities and experiences for a diverse group of students.”

UB’s NSF CAREER award recipients:

Alexey Akimov
Assistant Professor of Chemistry, UB College of Arts and Sciences
Award amount: $650,000

Akimov will use his CAREER award funding to improve quantum dynamics methods used to research and discover novel materials involved in applications such as solar energy and energy storage.

Titled, “Toward Reliable Nonadiabatic Dynamics in Condensed Matter and Nanoscale Systems,” Akimov’s project aims to develop new theoretical frameworks, computational methodologies and open-source software to lift the current limitations of quantum dynamics simulations in nanoscale systems.

The project will explore and re-evaluate the quality of existing approaches. The new simulation methodologies and open-source software that Akimov’s team develops will enable researchers to study new, previously inaccessible, classes of solar energy materials, contributing toward the development of sustainable and renewable energy economic sectors.

The research will be closely integrated with outreach and educational programs, including workshops on theoretical chemistry for graduate students and a virtual international seminar series for a broad scientific audience.

Souma Chowdhury
Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
Award amount: $500,000

Chowdhury’s award will support his research to design teams of autonomous robots, also referred to as swarms, that can operate collectively in a predictable way and adapt to a variety of environmental conditions. The research has implications in a wide variety of fields, including disaster response, environment monitoring, military operations and space exploration.

Many approaches to designing the behavior of robot swarms are unable to predict how individual robots will respond when operating in a group and cannot adapt to the differing environments that they face in the real world. Chowdhury’s project will support theoretical research to tackle these limitations by leveraging machine learning tools combined with rigorous engineering design approaches to systematically study how knowledge representation and the physical design of individual robots influence collective behavior.

Education and outreach will involve experiential learning programs such as computer gaming that will teach students how to design robots, and through the use of flying drones to monitor tree health at UB. Chowdhury also plans to engage with local fire departments to explore the technical and socioeconomic barriers to transitioning indoor hazard localization capabilities of swarm robots to practice.

Chowdhury is affiliated with UB’s Artificial Intelligence Institute, and the UB Community of Excellence in Sustainable Manufacturing and Advanced Robotic Technologies.

Elizabeth Thomas
Assistant Professor of Geology, UB College of Arts and Sciences
Award amount: $799,869

Thomas’ CAREER award project focuses on climate change, with research on the ancient climate history of the Great Lakes region, and an innovative educational program that engages students in helping local businesses and organizations reduce their carbon footprint.

Thomas will lead a team in analyzing sediments from lakes in Western New York to learn about ancient temperature and precipitation trends in the region, including lake effect snow. The focus will be on assessing these patterns during past periods of rapid warming on Earth that have taken place within the last 15,000 years. The findings will improve understanding about the ancient climate of areas lying within the middle latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere, filling in gaps in knowledge.

The CAREER award will also support the expansion of the Carbon Reduction Challenge, a course that Thomas teaches with Ryan McPherson, UB’s chief sustainability officer. Through the class, students work closely with organizations and businesses in Western New York to quantify the institutions’ greenhouse gas emissions, and create proposals for cutting those emissions through changes such as double-sided printing; adjusting thermostats to save energy; hosting virtual meetings to reduce travel; offering vegetarian meals; and using energy-efficient lighting.

The CAREER funding will enable Thomas and McPherson to grow this effort to include paid summer internships for a diverse group of students to work with companies, with a focus on supporting partnerships with minority-owned businesses.

Weihang Wang
Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
Award amount: $500,000

Wang’s CAREER award research will seek to mitigate challenges associated with complex web applications, which are built atop the integration of programs written in diverse programming languages and distributed by multiple parties.

By addressing the technical boundaries associated with understanding, analyzing and debugging such applications, Wang’s work will support web application reliability, increase web development productivity, and provide critical assurance for web users by shielding them from common web issues. The project is titled, “Cross-Boundary Program Analyses for Web Applications.”

Wang will also use the funding to educate future computer scientists and engineers by engaging undergraduate and graduate researchers in the project, and by collaborating with the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences’ CSExplore Summer Camp, a day camp for high school girls that teaches the fundamentals of computing. She plans to organize technical tutorials at conferences and give seminars at software companies to educate others on effective approaches for studying, mitigating and resolving common web issues.

The CAREER award will contribute to Wang’s long-term goal of creating effective tools that solve important software development, security and sustainability issues that affect a significant number of people.

Minghui Zheng
Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
Award amount: $571,087

Zheng’s CAREER award will provide support for her research to equip uncrewed aerial vehicles, or drones, with the capability to learn from the experience of other drones, despite their different dynamics and platforms, via a novel learning-based control framework.

Such an advancement — essentially drones teaching other — could significantly reduce the human effort now required to design, test, evaluate and certify drones. As such, the project has potential to promote mass production of heterogeneous drones in various areas and bring frontier drone-related research into practical applications rapidly. The work has applications in infrastructure inspection, maintenance and repairs.

The award also supports Zheng’s educational outreach plans, which will engage a broad range of groups including K-12 students, as well as undergraduate and graduate students. She plans to work with UB’s National Grid STEM Mentoring Program, bring drones to local classrooms, and provide research opportunities to undergraduate students in UB’s Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation program.

Zheng is the director of the Control and Automation Lab at UB, where she leads projects on UAVs, manipulators and mobile robots. Her research program seeks to improve many aspects of robotics including learning, planning, control and human-robot collaboration.

UB’s U.S. Air Force Young Investigator Program award recipient:

Frank Lagor
Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
Award amount: $450,000

Lagor will study the aerodynamics of small uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones.

Small-scale drone use is becoming increasingly common, with emerging and potential applications in package delivery, emergency response, defense reconnaissance and other areas. However, to expand the use of these devices, a better understanding of how air flow patterns over their wings affect lift is needed.

Lagor’s project seeks to improve the fundamental understanding of data-driven estimation of flow fields, which will involve optimizing placement of sensors on the wing’s surface to visualize the flow. The research could lead to advancements that could increase UAVs’ flight envelope — the technical parameters within which an aerial craft can operate safely.

Lagor’s award is funded by the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research in association with the Unsteady Aerodynamics and Turbulent Flows Program. It will provide funding for two graduate research assistants, and also benefits an ongoing research collaboration between Lagor and researchers at the Air Force Research Laboratory in Dayton, Ohio.

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Charlotte Hsu is a former staff writer in University Communications. To contact UB's media relations staff, email or visit our list of current university media contacts.