Stem cells to hypersonic vehicles: Four young scientists win presidential award

The "early career" researchers will receive up to five years of funding from the federal government to pursue important research.

Four Stanford researchers, one each from Biology, Mechanical Engineering, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and the School of Medicine, have won a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

The winners are Dominique Bergmann, assistant professor of biology; Gianluca Iaccarino, assistant professor of mechanical engineering; Jacob Wacker, theoretical physicist at SLAC; and Joseph Wu, associate professor of medicine and radiology.

The award is the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on outstanding scientists and engineers in the early stages of their research careers. The winners will receive research grants to pursue their research for up to five more years.

The four Stanford recipients are looking for answers in a variety of areas:

Dominique Bergmann

Dominque Bergmann

Bergmann studies cells of the diminutive Arabidopsis plant to understand the general rules of stem cell behavior, including how the cells balance the need for constant division without becoming cancerous. Stem cells can divide for nearly 1,000 years in some long-lived plants, and yet plants, unlike animals, don’t develop cancer. Bergmann looks at the generation of stomata, the microscopic pores on the surface of plants that allow for gas exchange, as a model for stem cells.

When a mother cell divides into two, the resulting daughter cells can sometimes differ in size and function, a process called asymmetric division. Both plants and animals use asymmetric divisions to maintain stem-cell populations. Bergmann uses the asymmetric division pattern of stomata cells to identify genes that regulate these uneven divisions.

Gianluca Iaccarino

Gianluca Iaccarino

Iaccarino's work focuses on computer simulation of the complex physics of "air-breathing hypersonic vehicles" – wickedly fast jet airplanes that fly several times the speed of sound. His work contributes to the understanding of turbulent flow and margins of uncertainty.

Hypersonic vehicles are envisioned as a means for reliable low-cost access to space. Their design depends on complex physics and the interactions between all of their components. The simulation capabilities of today's state-of-the-art computing can not reliably predict the outcome of a design; the answers will require a radically new integrated approach. The Department of Energy will fund his research.

Jacob Wacker

Jacob Wacker

Wacker, an assistant professor of particle physics and astrophysics, seeks to explain physics beyond the Standard Model, a set of laws governing the known particles and forces in the universe.

His research, funded by the Department of Energy, includes probing the existence of exotic particles and combing through data to validate or refute theories about the nature and origin of dark matter – a mysterious, invisible substance thought to make up nearly 80 percent of all the matter in the universe.

He also works closely with experimental physicists, offering new theories to be tested and providing theoretical explanations for the hiccups sometimes seen in experimental data sets.

Joseph Wu

Joseph Wu

Wu studies how embryonic and adult stem cells survive, proliferate and transform into other cell types. Wu approaches his research with an eye toward clinical treatment and is investigating the potential of stem cells to form tumors or be rejected by the immune system. He also works on techniques that can turn developed cells, like skin cells, into induced pluripotent stem cells without depending on possibly dangerous viruses, a risky feature of early methods.

Additionally, Wu is exploring ways to safely and effectively deliver genes to improve damaged heart cells. His grant is from the National Institutes of Health.

"These gifted young scientists and engineers represent the best in our country," said Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, a former Stanford researcher. "The awards recognize ingenuity, dedication, diligence and talent."

Susan Young is a science-writing intern at the Stanford News Service.