March 14, 2012

Science Professors Receive Awards

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The Sloan Foundation recently awarded three “promising young scholars.” Prof. William Dichtel, chemistry, Prof. Nate Foster, computer science and Prof. Noah Snavely, computer science, each received a $50,000 grant to support their research over the next two years.“The principal goal of the Sloan Research Fellows is to accelerate scientific breakthroughs,” Dr. Daniel L. Goroff, program director for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, said in an email. “We also hope to help the best young scientists early in their careers with the expectation that they will become the scientific community’s future leaders.”Dichtel, one of the professors, is currently in the early stages of creating new materials to harness solar power.Ditchek explained that he uses organic chemistry to assemble molecules into materials with very specific structures. “In doing that, we can achieve new properties,” he said.Dichtel’s goal is to make organic solar cells — cells made of plastic that convert solar energy into electricity — more efficient than the current ones.“If we can get [efficiency] above 10 percent it may become commercially viable,” he said. “We are trying to make materials that no one has made before.”Goroff praised Dichtel for his innovative work in solar energy research.“His work is moving us closer to the day when solar technology can compete with fossil fuel as a source of electricity,” Goroff said. Foster is working toward designing a computer language for data management and computer networks that he says will be more convenient and reliable for programmers.“My research developed a language that you can interpret in two directions,” he said.  “[Computer programs] can be run forwards — input to output — and run backwards by taking an output and computing backwards to get a corresponding input.”With the new language, programmers can ensure that conversions between different devices — such as a phone and a computer — will work correctly and efficiently.Foster said he is also working on improving communication between different computers in large data centers.“What we’re trying to do is come up with the languages that people can use to program these devices, like network routers and network switches, that are managing the transmission of data between machines in a big deployment,” he said.Snavely, the other winner from the computer science department, is working on constructing 3-D models of objects captured in photographs, collecting pictures from photosharing sites like Flickr and Facebook. He said he is also extrapolating data from the photos “to figure out exactly where and exactly when each photo was taken.”“We’re looking at things like where is the sun in the sky, what’s the weather like, where are shadows, and using those to identify time,” he said.According to Snavely, using certain information from photos, such as their times and dates, will allow researchers to observe the effects of climate change on trees or predict when structures will collapse based on their 3-D geometry over time.“We want to understand the world through these online photo collections,” he said. All three professors said that Cornell has helped further their research goals.“It’s a very friendly and supportive environment, but there [are] also great colleagues that I can work with here on these very difficult problems,” Snavely said.Foster echoed this statement, saying his colleagues are “the best at what they do in their field and the grad students that I work with are the best of their time.”Dichtel added that Cornell provides various tools for helping researchers make groundbreaking discoveries and the quality of students that the University attracts is a helpful resource for research.“It’s really their talent and their hard work that makes this all happen,” he said.Dichtel said that the $50,000 award will have a great impact on research at Cornell.“Those funds will help us pay our costs of doing research, so that can include personnel costs, ordering chemicals and supplies for the laboratory,” he said.Ultimately, Dichtel said the award will help expand the reputation of the laboratory beyond the University.“This award is very nice recognition that we’re on the right track” he said.

Original Author: Jonathan Dawson