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Three NatSci researchers earn prestigious NSF Early CAREER Awards

By Mollie Newman

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Three Michigan State University researchers in the College of Natural Science (NatSci) – Tuo Wang, Nathan Whitehorn and Yang Yang – are recipients of National Science Foundation (NSF) Early CAREER Faculty Awards. The award is one of NSF’s most prestigious and is given to faculty members who demonstrate leadership in research and education and have a passion for integrating the two.

The leading-edge research of these three faculty members pushes the limits of science, while their devotion to education is preparing the next generation of scientists to propel their respective fields even further. Collectively, their 5-year CAREER awards total $1.83 million in NSF funding.

“The award of three NSF CAREER awards to faculty in NatSci this year is a testament to the outstanding achievements and potential of young faculty across the college and continues the legacy of success in this competition,” said Phillip M. Duxbury, NatSci dean. “Congratulations to these exceptional faculty members and to the units where they carry out their innovative research, teaching and service programs.”

Headshot of Tuo Wang in a navy blue shirt.
Tuo Wang, MSU Department of Chemistry. Credit: Harley J. Seeley

Tuo Wang, associate professor in the Department of Chemistry, focuses his research on the development and application of solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy to investigate the structure, dynamics and interactions of insoluble macromolecules in various biological systems such as energy-rich plant biomass, disease-related fungal cell walls, viral proteins and phospholipid membranes.

Wang’s interdisciplinary CAREER project titled, Functional Structure and Dynamics of Complex Carbohydrates Via Sensitivity-Enhanced Solid-State NMR and Database Development, intersects chemistry, biology, and computer science. His research will reveal the fundamental principles of how microbes construct their cell walls, which will promote the development of carbohydrate-based/targeted biomaterials and antifungal agents.

“The Early CAREER Award is a strong support to a junior faculty and a stimulating force for us to make better contributions to science and education,” Wang said. “This support allows me to explore projects that are fully fundamental and focus on method development without worrying about applications; this is the part I appreciate the most. The advances in biophysical methods and database development will benefit the research community and set the stage for further investigations of carbohydrates from various organisms such as algae, bacteria, plants and animals.”

Wang’s project includes training and education for the next generation of biophysical scientists from kindergarten through postdoctoral training. He aims to make biophysical and biomolecular studies more accessible to a diverse pool of students. Since Louisiana is one of the most under-equipped states in biomolecular NMR, new courses and outreach programs will expand the research capability of the state.

Wang received his Ph.D. in 2016 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the field of physical chemistry where he continued his postdoctoral training. He joined MSU in August 2022.

Headshot of Nathan Whitehorn in a brown plaid shirt.

Nathan Whitehorn, MSU Department of Physics and Astronomy. Credit: Harley J. Seeley

Nathan Whitehorn, assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, studies the intersection of elementary particle physics and astrophysics.

One area of focus for Whitehorn and his lab is the Ice Cube Neutrino Observatory located at the South Pole in Antarctica, which was built to discover the origin of high-energy cosmic rays by looking for accompanying neutrino emission. Cosmic rays are particles arriving at the Earth from distant sources. A century after their discovery, however, the origin of these remarkable particles, and the process responsible for giving them these energies remains unknown. A first glimpse at these sources has come over the past decade from the IceCube Observatory.

Whitehorn’s research project, Understanding the Neutrino Sky, provides an opportunity to pursue a pressing mystery: the origin of cosmic rays at high energies, which come to Earth at energies millions of times higher than any man-made accelerator can produce.

His $811,041 CAREER award will support the development of new techniques to understand data from the IceCube Neutrino Observatory. The award also contains the first U.S. funding to help build a new neutrino telescope, named P-ONE, deep under the ocean in the Pacific Northwest. The telescope is expected to achieve angular resolution four to five times greater than IceCube, allowing the first population studies of neutrino sources and revolutionizing our understanding of the high-energy universe.

"It is tremendously exciting to have this opportunity to untangle a century-old puzzle about the universe around us and to educate the next generation of students,” Whitehorn said. “Particularly exciting is that this funding represents the first U.S. support for a new instrument in the Pacific Northwest that will break open the whole field and will MSU at the forefront of the U.S. effort on this project."

Whitehorn’s plans for education and outreach in Michigan schools include a pair of programs to increase diversity at the undergraduate to graduate transition and new programs for teaching experimental physics at the graduate and undergraduate level that will better align coursework with the skills needed for both academic and industry careers. In addition, the award supports the installation of a new exhibit on cosmic rays and particle physics at the Impression Five science center, a major center for science education in mid-Michigan attracting nearly 200,000 visitors a year.

Whitehorn received his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2012. Prior to joining MSU in 2020, he was an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California Lost Angeles.

Headshot of Yang Yang in a light blue shirt.

Yang Yang, MSU Department of Computational Mathematics, Science and Engineering. Credit: Harley J. Seeley

Yang Yang, assistant professor in the Department of Computational Mathematics, Science and Engineering (jointly administered by the Colleges of Natural Science and Engineering), studies analytical and computational methods for inverse problems and partial differential equations.

Yang will use his $419,232 CAREER award to expand the scope and depth of his research pursuing innovative ideas and taking more risks. His project, Synergistic Inverse Wave Analysis and Computation, aims to shed new light on non-destructive probing techniques, or NDT. NDT is a method that uses waves to probe targets that are not directly observable without limiting the target’s usability. This method is important in medical imaging of tumors, imaging for oil prospecting, and for searching for hidden military threats. The research will also serve to strengthen his ability to attract talented students, researchers and collaborators.

“The NSF CAREER award is surely a great honor, not just to me, but to my entire research team,” Yang said. “It is an honor to be recognized by my peers and the scientific community for contributions in my field and for my potential as a researcher. This award serves as a tremendous source of motivation, affirming my commitment to advancing scientific knowledge and addressing critical challenges.”

Yang’s project includes educational activities in mathematics and programming for K-12, undergraduate, and STEM graduate students, with an emphasis on diversity and inclusion. These skills will help prepare them to continue advancing science and technology for the next few decades.

“The CAREER funding will also provide significant support to our long-term goal of building the pipeline for wave-based inverse problems from theory to scientific computing to real-world application,” he said. “The funds will also support our continuing dedication to promote educational training as well as diversity, equity and inclusion.”

Yang received his Ph.D. in math from the University of Washington in 2014. Before joining MSU, he worked as a Golomb Visiting Assistant Professor at Purdue University.


Banner image: College of Natural Science's newest National Science Foundation (NSF) Early CAREER Award recipients (L to R): Tuo Wang (chemistry), Yang Yang (computational mathematics, science and engineering) and Nathan Whitehorn (physics and astronomy). Collectively, their 5-year CAREER awards total $1.83 million in NSF funding. Credit: Harley J. Seeley