Engineering Faculty Garner NSF CAREER Awards

Two engineering faculty members were selected to receive the National Science Foundation (NSF) Early Career Development (CAREER) Award in 2006: assistant professor of Computer Science & Engineering Ion Mandoiu and assistant professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering Jeong-Ho Kim.

Dr. Mandoiu was awarded a five-year $554,500 National Science Foundation Early Career Development (CAREER) award for his research into methods for quickly processing high volumes of genomic diversity data.

The 13-year Human Genome Project, completed in 2003, produced a blueprint of the DNA present in the cells of each human. Genomics research focuses on variations that occur between individuals, with the objective of understanding how these variations determine elusive traits such as susceptibility to diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and other disorders and diseases.

Human cells contain two copies of each chromosome, with the exception of sex chromosomes. Humans inherit one member of each chromosome pair from their fathers and the second from their mothers. But with each new generation, the chromosomes are altered in a process known as recombination, in which members of each chromosome pair unite and exchange pieces. The result is a hybrid chromosome containing pieces from both members of a chromosome pair, and this hybrid chromosome is passed on to the next generation. The same process is repeated over the course of many generations, producing genetic variants that are catalogued in the International HapMap Project.

Genomic diversity analyses of large-scale control and population studies hold promise for clarifying the genetic basis of disease susceptibility and uncovering the pattern of historical population migrations. However, many technological and computational challenges must be overcome before researchers can begin such substantial studies. Dr. Mandoiu will focus on solving two major challenges in the puzzle: (a) development of accurate, economical methods for rapid genotyping, and (b) development of computational methods for analyzing the genetic sequences of different individuals to discover those genes linked with disease susceptibility and individual responses to medications and environmental factors.

He anticipates that the research will lead to decreased data collection costs in large-scale association studies, permitting researchers to conduct a greater number of studies at lower cost. Dr. Mandoiu also foresees that his CAREER research will enable additional applications of genomic technologies, such as genomics-based point-of-care medical diagnosis and largescale species identification. He comments that the direct beneficiary of his rapid genotyping methodology will be the biotech industry, which manufactures and commercializes genotyping assays. In addition, he says, “Biomedical researchers from academic institutions and pharmaceutical companies would indirectly benefit from reduced genotyping costs by being able to conduct larger/more genomic variability studies within the same budget. These studies are expected to have a broad impact on human health.” Possible long-term benefits may include customized medical treatments and gene therapies to modify faulty chromosomes.

After earning his Ph.D. from the Georgia Institute for Technology in 2000, Dr. Mandoiu conducted post-doctoral research and was a Research Scientist at the University of California at Los Angeles and at San Diego. He joined the University of Connecticut in 2003.

Dr. Jeong-Ho Kim, assistant professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering, was awarded a five-year, $400,000 CAREER award to conduct modeling and experiments in functionally graded solid oxide fuel cells. The focus of his research is to improve the performance of solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs) by applying the concept of functionally graded materials (FGMs).

Fuel cells are increasingly seen as a future solution to the nation’s energy dependence on nonrenewable fossil fuels. SOFCs are particularly promising, thanks to their high power density, fuel flexibility, and potential for generating electricity and heat for industry and auxiliary power in vehicles. Despite their many advantages, says Dr. Kim, the power output of SOFCs can be hampered by interfacial delamination. “This condition results from residual stresses produced when the cell components (anode, electrolyte, and cathode) thermally expand at different rates, and also from thermal stresses generated during operational thermal cycling,” he explains.

The Department of Energy, through its Solid-state Energy Conversion Alliance (SECA) program, sets a required SOFC service life of more than 40,000 hours with hundreds of thermal cycles for stationary systems, and 5,000 hours with 3,000 thermal cycles for transportation systems. Dr. Kim seeks to overcome the factors that limit SOFC performance so these fuel cells can meet the stringent SECA standards. His CAREER research pivots on developing functionally graded electrodes and on providing SOFC design guidelines, permitting fast start-up times and longer service and thermal cycle life. Dr. Kim explains that his “investigations will address three-dimensional transient thermal fracture analysis of functionally graded SOFCs using cohesive zone models and interaction integrals along with microstructure-based stochastic fracture modeling and coupled thermo-mechanical sensitivity analysis.” This research is expected to improve the electrochemical and mechanical performance of SOFCs.

The results of Dr. Kim’s CAREER research will be introduced to high school students participating in the residential Engineering 2000 summer program—as well as high school science, math and technology teachers participating in the residential da Vinci Project. Dr. Kim joined the Civil & Environmental Engineering Department in January 2004 after receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Dr. Kim has developed strong research expertise in numerical modeling and simulation for functionally graded materials (FGMs).