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Three Stanford scientists receive NSF Young Investigator Awards

STANFORD -- Three Stanford scientists were among the 197 scientists and engineers selected by the National Science Foundation this year to receive NSF Young Investigator Awards, a program designed to recognize outstanding young faculty and enhance their careers.

The three researchers are John H. Griffin, assistant professor of chemistry; Chaitan S. Khosla, assistant professor of chemical engineering; and Charles M. Marcus, assistant professor of physics.

The young investigator awards provide up to $100,000 per year of public and private funds for five years. Each year, NSF provides $25,000 in base support and up to $37,500 to match support that the researcher receives from private or nonprofit sources.

Awards were made based on a merit review of the 1,435 nominations that NSF received. The review emphasized an individual's accomplishment to date and potential to make substantial contributions to the overall academic enterprise.

This is the last year that these awards will be made. According to the agency, they are being "subsumed" by a new Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) program that will be tailored to specific science and engineering disciplines.

Griffin's research lies at the boundary between chemistry and biology. His primary interests are the methods by which molecules recognize each other and the process of catalysis. (A catalyst is a compound that speeds up a chemical reaction without undergoing any permanent change.) One of his current research efforts involves the creation and study of "catalytic antibiotics." Normally, antibiotics fight foreign bacteria and fungi by attacking specific enzymes or compounds attached to the intruders' outer membrane. Normally, they destroy themselves in the process, so it takes a large number of antibiotic molecules to neutralize one bacterium. Starting with two commonly used antibiotics, vancomycin and bacitracin, the chemist is searching for derivative compounds that can attack bacteria without destroying themselves. If this effort is successful, it could lead to more powerful antibiotics.

Khosla uses genetic engineering to imitate the way in which nature makes an important class of biological molecules, called polyketides, that are found in a number of antibiotic, immunosuppressant and anti-cancer drugs. When drug companies begin looking for a new drug and have no place to start, they begin by screening thousands of natural products looking for a “lead” molecule that exhibits some of the desired activity. Khosla's approach is an alternative to the traditional method that could develop into a better way to identify some kinds of lead molecules. He has used it successfully to create a number of novel polyketides that have not been seen in nature. Recently, he has started a new project that attempts to apply this basic approach to the discovery of new enzymes.

How randomness of nature appears out of atomic perfection is the focus of Marcus' research. At the level of the single atom, nature is perfectly ordered and each atom of the same element is identical. By contrast, at the macroscopic level of everyday life, disorder, randomness and unrepeatability appear. By fabricating ultraminiature semiconductor structures known as quantum dots that lie midway in size between atomic and bulk scales, Marcus has shown that even structures free of disorder can exhibit random behavior due to the quantum mechanical signatures of chaos. Quantum dots are tiny spots of electrical conductor, a ten- thousandth of a centimeter across, that are given a precise shape using advanced nanofabrication techniques. Although the quantum dot is free of disorder, one of its electrical properties - its impedance to electron flow - varies randomly when it is subjected to an external magnetic field, Marcus has found. This is one example of the research that he is pursuing at the "mesoscopic" realm that lies midway between the atomic and macroscopic scales.



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