• Assistant professor Julia Greer receives a DARPA Young Faculty Award from DARPA director Regina E. Dugan (PhD '93) and deputy director Kaigham J. Gabriel.
11/03/2009 19:00:00

Two Caltech Researchers Receive DARPA Young Faculty Awards

PASADENA, Calif.—The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has selected two researchers from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) to participate in its Young Faculty Award (YFA) program.

Julia R. Greer, assistant professor of materials science, and Doris Tsao, assistant professor of biology, are among the 33 "rising stars" from 24 U.S. universities who each will receive grants of approximately $300,000 to develop and validate their research ideas over the next 24 months.

Greer joined the Caltech faculty in the Division of Engineering and Applied Science (EAS) in 2007 after receiving her PhD from Stanford University in 2005. In 2008, Greer made Technology Review's list of the world's top innovators under the age of 35 for her work with materials at the nanoscale level. In 2008, she received a Faculty Early Career Development award from the National Science Foundation.

Greer's YFA project is aimed at understanding and subsequently mimicking the superior mechanical robustness and strength of naturally occurring protective layers—such as nacre, or mother of pearl, a composite produced by some mollusks to line their inner shell—to create strong, ductile, damage-tolerant materials that maintain a relatively low density.

"Drawing inspiration from hard biological systems will allow us to gain insight into new physical phenomena operating in these materials, and to subsequently create innovative material systems with greatly amplified mechanical properties dictated by the choice of individual components, specific geometries, and microstructure in a truly across-scales fashion," says Greer.

One key objective of the work will be to fabricate a "brick-and-mortar" architecture using tiny plates of a metallic glass and ultrafine-grained ductile metal with nanoscale dimensions; this hierarchical architecture could then be used to fabricate new engineering composites with amplified strength and ductility.

"Greer's nature-inspired work exemplifies the cutting-edge research being carried out in the division," says Ares Rosakis, chair of EAS and Theodore von Kármán Professor of Aeronautics and Mechanical Engineering.

Tsao received her PhD from Harvard University in 2002, and came to Caltech in 2009 from the University of Bremen in Germany. She was named on Technology Review's 2007 list of top young innovators; in 2009, she became a John Merck Scholar, a Searle Scholar, and a Klingenstein Scholar.

Tsao uses functional magnetic resonance imaging, electrical recordings from single neurons, anatomical measurements, and mathematical modeling to understand how the brain identifies objects and reconstructs the three-dimensional world. Specifically, her proposed work will attempt to decipher the neural machinery underlying spatial navigation. 

"Navigation, which is the purposeful movement through space guided by sensory feedback and memory, is a defining behavior in all animals," says Tsao. Understanding the brain mechanisms responsible for navigation, she says, "constitutes a critical step toward designing artificial systems capable of human-like autonomous navigation. Such systems may be used to explore dangerous terrain and to perform tasks, such as clearing land mines, that could risk the loss of human life."

The objective of the DARPA YFA program is to identify and engage rising research stars in junior faculty positions in academia.  The YFA program provides funding mentoring, and industry and Department of Defense (DOD) contacts to these faculty members early in their careers, so that they can develop their research ideas in the context of the needs of the DOD. DARPA's long-term goal for this program is to develop the next generation of academic scientists, engineers, and mathematicians in key disciplines who will focus a significant portion of their careers on DOD and National Security issues.

The YFA awardees were chosen though a competitive selection process. Applicants were required to be untenured faculty at U.S. institutions within six years of appointment to a tenure-track position. Nearly 300 proposals were reviewed for the 2009 awards.

Written by Kathy Svitil