Sloan Foundation Honors Three at Tech

Three Georgia Tech faculty members have been named 2005 Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellows. This year, 116 fellows were selected from nominations of young American and Canadian faculty members in the sciences and economics. Tech's current crop of Sloan Fellows includes: Alex Kuzmich, the Cullen-Peck assistant professor in the School of Physics, Todd Streelman, assistant professor in the School of Biology and Marcus Weck, assistant professor in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

Each fellow at Tech will receive $45,000 over a two-year period that can be used without restriction in research of the fellow's choice. The awards, established in 1955, are the oldest program of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and are designed to give support and recognition to early-career scientists and scholars.

Streelman, who is completing his first year at Tech, will use the award to supplement his study of the jaws and teeth of cichlid fish in Africa's Lake Malawi. Cichlid fish exhibit a trait known as phenotypic plasticity in their jaws whereby the same set of genes can result in widely different jaw types and sizes depending on the prey the fish eats. Fish who start out life eating prey that require crushing will develop strong jaws, while fish who eat more tender prey will have weaker jaws, even though the genes may be identical. As a result, cichlids exhibit tremendous diversity in the form and strength of their jaws. Streelman is studying the jaws to gain a more complete picture of how the genes and the environment result in different traits.

"We want to know the genes that control functional variation in the shapes of jaw and tooth skeletal elements," he said. In addition to looking at the jaws as a biological system, Streelman said they can be modeled as mechanical systems. "If we can measure the angles and components, we can treat them as if they were a synthetic material and ask how these models predict the force generated by the fish. The work has potential applications for mechanical as well as tissue engineering."

Kuzmich plans on using the award to develop long distance communications over quantum networks. Unlike traditional computer networks, which move information in bits of ones or zeros, quantum networks move information in quantum bits, which can be both ones and zeros at the same time. The upshot is that quantum computers may be able to do certain tasks - code breaking and simulations of quantum mechanics, for example - more quickly and more securely than conventional computers.

"In principle, classic communications networks are always insecure," explained Kuzmich. "With quantum communications, one cannot eavesdrop without being detected because the act of eavesdropping changes the states of the quantum bits. So it is always easy to see if someone is listening to what you are saying. This could have a big impact on commerce and government applications."

Weck will use the award to support his work in developing self-assembling, multifunctional raw materials. Weck explained that nature uses only a few building blocks to make a wide array of complex materials, such as DNA and proteins. His work involves trying to mimic nature's design motifs in making new materials.

"The amount of complexity you can get with these self-assembling motifs is potentially much higher than what you can get with covalent chemistry-based systems," said Weck.

Previous Sloan Fellows from Tech include: Saugata Basu (2003 Mathematics), Andrew Lyon and Z. John Zhang (2002 Chemistry), Robert Dickson (2001 Chemistry), Elizabeth Mynatt and Dana Randall (2001 Computing) and Rigoberto Hernandez (2000 Chemistry).

"The nice thing about the fellowship is the confidence that it gives you," said Streelman. "When I look at the list of people who've gotten it before, it's a pretty impressive group of people."