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Seven scientists named first Terman Fellows
STANFORD -- Seven young science and engineering faculty members have been named the first Frederick E. Terman Fellows at Stanford University, a program that was launched last spring with a $25 million gift from William Hewlett and David Packard.
The inaugural Terman Fellows, who all hold the rank of assistant professor, are: Thomas W. Kenny, mechanical engineering; Gregory Kovacs, electrical engineering; Jun Li, mathematics; Charles Marcus, physics; Susan McConnell, biological sciences; Serge Plotkin, computer science; and Shan Wang, electrical engineering.
The new fellows were honored at a recent reception at Hoover House, the official residence of the president, that was attended by both Hewlett and Packard.
Kenny will use the fellowship to acquire the laboratory instrumentation that he needs to pursue his research in micromachining, the manufacture of microscopic mechanical devices. He is interested not only in making such devices but also in quantitatively measuring their characteristics so that they can be developed for applications.
One current project in his laboratory is the development of a miniature infrared sensor that does not require cooling. This sensor could be used in laboratory spectrometers and, because radiation and complex thermal changes do not greatly affect its performance, it is ideal for space applications. Another sensor under development is a miniature accelerometer based on measuring deflections smaller than the diameter of an atom.
In addition, Kenny intends to search for unusual quantum mechanical effects that such devices may exhibit as they continue to shrink in size. (Quantum mechanics is the set of rules that govern atomic and sub-atomic behavior.) Many interesting and useful quantum effects already have been observed in electrical microstructures, and the scientist expects that analogous effects now can be observed in mechanical microstructures, which could lead to the development of new types of microdevices.
One of those rare individuals who has both an M.D. and a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, Kovacs, who joined the faculty in 1991, works at the interface between biology and electronics. Present projects include the development of direct interfaces between external computers and the nervous systems of various animals, advanced biosensors, micromechanical actuators, and methods to connect implantable sensors.
Several years ago, he helped design one of the first electronic devices that was able to tap directly into the electrical conversations of individual neurons in a rat's leg. More recently, he has been involved in efforts to use integrated circuits to explore the interactions between the cells that make up the brain. This effort includes the design and manufacture of tiny electronic probes, to be inserted directly into the surface layers of the brain, that can detect the signals sent between neurons through the area between brain cells.
Li, who has been an assistant professor of mathematics since 1992, is currently on leave for one year, teaching at the University of California-Los Angeles. Li describes his research as studying the moduli space of rank-two semistable sheaves on arbitrary smooth algebraic surfaces. "The aim of this research is two-fold. The first is to study the geometry of moduli spaces. The second is to develop new techniques in studying the Donaldson's polynomial invariants of algebraic surfaces of general type and to find new deformation invariants of the algebraic surfaces.”
How randomness arises in nature 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 has been pursuing at the "mesoscopic" realm that lies midway between the atomic and macroscopic scales since he came to Stanford in 1992.
Since coming to Stanford in 1989, McConnell has focused her research on the development of the cerebral cortex, the rind of neurons around the outside of the brain responsible for higher cognitive functions such as visual perception, and for the generation of willful movements. She and her lab are investigating how young nerve cells form precise connections with one another during development. One experimental approach to this problem is essentially to ask the neuron whether it knows who it is yet: The behavior of young nerve cells that have been transplanted from one brain to another reveals how "committed" the cells are to their previous identities. Using this and other techniques, McConnell and her colleagues have discovered that signals sent between young nerve cells provide instructions that help determine the cell's fate. Her laboratory now is trying to identify the molecules and genes that are required for this signaling to occur. Her studies are providing critical new insights into the process of how the brain wires itself up during development.
Coming up with methods for managing the flow of information through the nation's emerging information infrastructure is the object of Plotkin's research. Although frequently called the information superhighway, the information network will be much more diverse and considerably more complex than the highway metaphor suggests. As a result, developing new methods to route information through this system will play an important role in determining how effectively it works.
Working closely with AT&T engineers, Plotkin's laboratory is searching for new methods that can accomplish this goal. The new routing strategies are based on a combination of classical optimization techniques such as network flow with recently developed methodologies that perform well without complete knowledge of the future.
Although it is huge, today's phone system is relatively well behaved. The information superhighway will be quite different, and far more chaotic, the computer scientist predicts, because it will be much less uniform, and will support a wide range of services ranging from text to multimedia in addition to regular phone service. New uses are bound to develop that are likely to use up all the system's available capacity no matter how rapidly it is increased, raising the importance of efficient management of network resources. Plotkin has been at Stanford for five years.
Wang, who came to Stanford last year, is studying new materials for use in the read and write heads on magnetic disk drives that store digital information for computers. The heads float just above the rotating platters of the disk. To write information on a spinning platter, short pulses of electrical current are passed through a write head, which produces a localized magnetic field that magnetizes small regions of the disk surface. To access this information, a read head must be able to detect the tiny magnetic domains that the write head created. This process becomes increasing complicated as the amount of information packed onto the disks increases.
Current commercial systems can store about 50 megabytes of information per square inch of disk space. But Wang's group has set a goal of increasing this by more than 20 times, to more than one gigabyte. He will be using the fellowship to study a new class of materials for the use in read heads. These materials exhibit a property called giant magnetoresistance. That is, their resistance to electrical current varies much more strongly to changes in magnetic field than that of normal magnetic materials. As a result, they can read magnetic bits of information recorded in an area that is about 20 billionths of a square inch.
Hewlett and Packard, alumni of the electrical engineering department at Stanford and founders of the Hewlett-Packard Co., endowed the fellowships last spring as a tribute to the late provost Terman, to whom they gave credit for much of their, Stanford's and the Silicon Valley's success.
Last October, the pair donated another $77.4 million toward completion of a new science and engineering quadrangle at Stanford, also a tribute to Terman.
The Terman Fellowships program allows outstanding junior faculty in the natural sciences and engineering to obtain up to $100,000 annually for three years as they launch their own research programs. The program seeks to help young scientists who in recent years have faced increased competition for federal grants that would let them establish their own laboratories and recruit graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.
Similar programs exist on a national level but are rare for individual universities. A few programs also exist for smaller grants to junior faculty in the behavioral sciences and the humanities.
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