Four Engineering Faculty Receive Early Career Awards

From left are Arash Zaghi, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering; Julian Norato, assistant professor of mechanical engineering; David M. Pierce, assistant professor of mechanical engineering; and Assistant Professor of computer science and engineering Don Sheehy.

Three UConn School of Engineering faculty members were recently awarded Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) awards from the National Science Foundation. These highly competitive awards recognize junior faculty for outstanding research and exemplary educational skills, with the goal of building a firm foundation for leadership in integrating education and research.

Additionally, one faculty member received the Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Program award, which seeks to identify and support academic scientists and engineers who are early in their career and show exceptional promise for doing creative research.

David M. Pierce, assistant professor in mechanical engineering, was awarded $500,000 over five years for his CAREER project, “Understanding Collagen Microcracks in Soft Tissues Under Normal Body Loads.” Pierce and his research team, the Interdisciplinary Mechanics Laboratory, discovered that impacts usually considered non-injurious will often cause micrometer-scale cracks in collagen of human cartilage. These microcracks may lead to pre-clinical osteoarthritis, but the extent to which they grow under repetitive loads during normal daily activities is unknown. Osteoarthritis afflicts nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population, and causes pain, functional limitations, lost earnings, and depression.

Pierce’s CAREER award will provide baseline data on microcrack propagation by combining computer simulations with new experimental data; validated tools to predict local micro-mechanics of damage in porous, fibrous materials from macroscopic deformations; platform technologies to more broadly study the mechanical functions of soft tissues and engineering materials; mechanical understanding of a likely path to osteoarthritis; new markers to evaluate the effectiveness of therapies targeting early cartilage degeneration; and an educational platform to engage diverse students.


Julian Norato, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, was awarded $329,000 from the Office of Naval Research’s Young Investigator Program. His research advances a computational framework to explore the design concepts of structures that are made of composable materials. Composable materials have properties that can be spatially controlled to various extents by manufacturing processes, including composite materials, functionally graded materials, and multi-material mixtures that can be obtained via additive manufacturing techniques. This framework will aid the designer by automatically producing optimal structural concepts starting from a blank design envelope.

In particular, these concepts are made of geometric shapes that can be manufactured with existing techniques (such as curved plates and bars), and take advantage of the orientation-dependent properties of composable materials. This design capability has applications across naval structures, including aircraft and ship structures. The potential reduction in weight resulting from novel concepts obtained with this capability will result in improved mission performance, including longer ranges, increased payload, and/or decreased fuel consumption.


Assistant professor of computer science and engineering Don Sheehy received a five-year, $223,632 CAREER award for his project “Algorithmic Challenges and Opportunities in Spatial Data Analysis.”

Spatial data takes many forms, including the space within robots or between proteins, collections of shapes or measures, and physical models and measurements from new sensing technologies. These data sets often contain intrinsic, nonlinear, low-dimensional structures hidden in complex, high-dimensional input representations.

To uncover these hidden structures, algorithms and data structures need to adapt to local changes in scale, recognize multiscale features, represent the intrinsic space underlying the data, compute with coarse approximate distances, and integrate heterogeneous data into meaningful distance functions. Sheehy will develop new data structures, models of computation, sampling theories, sampling algorithms, and metrics that can search, represent, and summarize these data sets efficiently.


Assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering Arash Esmaili Zaghi received a four-year award for $519,967 for his CAREER project “Promoting Engineering Innovation Through Increased Neurodiversity by Encouraging the Participation of Students with ADHD.” Zaghi, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), will generate a research base to include students with ADHD through the integration of research and education.

The research objectives of this project are to determine the cognitive constructs related to ADHD characteristics that can predict creative potential, the factors and features of educational systems that mediate or moderate the academic performance of engineering students with ADHD characteristics, and the extent to which the engineering products of neurodiverse teams of students are more creative than the products of homogenous teams.

Zaghi’s team will also design both a summer research program for ADHD high school students and an academic year program for ADHD undergraduate students to improve their experience and encourage them to pursue graduate studies.

Published: May 2, 2017