Prestigious NSF awards go to two faculty members

Pamela Padilla
Pamela Padilla, assistant professor of biology.
Rada Mihalcea
Rada Mihalcea, assistant professor of computer science and engineering.
Monday, April 28, 2008

DENTON (UNT), Texas -- The National Science Foundation has awarded two University of North Texas professors National Science Foundation CAREER awards. The CAREER award program, the most prestigious offered by the NSF for young investigators, supports early career development activities of teacher-scholars who effectively integrate research and education within the context of the mission of their organization.

Pamela Padilla, assistant professor of biology, and Rada Mihalcea, assistant professor of computer science and engineering, received the awards. Both awards are for five years; Padilla's award is for about $639,000 and Mihalcea's award is about $500,000.  

Padilla's research looks at genetic modifications that occur in the soil nematode C. elegans. The millimeter-long roundworm has served as a genetic model system for humans since the 1970's and was the first multicellular organism with a genome that was completely sequenced. Padilla was one of the first researchers to use C. elegans as a model system to understand severe oxygen deprivation.

Padilla said, "Oxygen deprivation is an environmental stress that many metazoans have adapted to, yet chronic or severe hypoxia is known to drastically affect developing organisms and compromise tissue structure and function. When it comes to humans, oxygen deprivation has detrimental consequences, up to and including death."

Specifically, Padilla's research will look into a mutation of a gene that acts as an insulin-like receptor. The mutation allows the nematode to survive in an oxygen-deficient environment. Once the role of that mutation is determined, Padilla will conduct genetic screening to identify additional gene mutations that lead to oxygen deprivation survival. 

Padilla is excited about the educational component of the CAREER award. She will develop a lesson plan that will be used not only for UNT's undergraduate genetics labs, but also integrated into the existing K-7th grade science programs at the university's Elm Fork Education Center.

"Typical undergraduate laboratory classes involve ‘cookbook' lessons. Our objective is to develop discovery-based lessons that stimulate the creative process of our students," Padilla said. "The award is a big thrill for me. From my perspective, the best part of the award is that you can both conduct research and teach, and integrate the two to make both components stronger."

Padilla is also the recipient of a National Institute of Health R01 award. This grant was awarded in 2004 for $890,000. It supports a five-year program to study the effects of oxygen deprivation on the cell of a developing C. elegans embryo. The percentage of U.S. faculty members who hold simultaneous NIH R01 and NSF awards is small and Padilla is the first faculty member in UNT's history with this honor.      

Rada Mihalcea's NSF CAREER award will support research in the semantic interpretation of text for language-processing applications. The applications use dictionaries or thesauruses to understand the meanings of words, but distinctions in those meanings can differ from one resource to another.

"Rather than just use one resource to model the meanings of the words, we are trying to combine several different one-language and multi-language resources. We will create word meaning representations that are rich, flexible and adaptable to specific language-processing applications," Mihalcea said. "Once we build these richer multi-lingual word meaning representations, we will integrate them into natural language applications such as word and text translation and text-to-text similarity."

Mihalcea plans to integrate these models into educational applications. They can be used to build a tool to assist Spanish-speaking students comprehend English texts by providing simpler English synonyms or translations into Spanish.

"Identifying these simpler synonyms and definitions for difficult English words and bringing them within the reach of the student will be a big help. Students typically look up unknown words in an external dictionary, but this interrupts their reading process, making it difficult for them to understand the text they read. This research will help to avoid such interruptions, and will make the English texts more accessible for Spanish-speaking students," she said.

Mihalcea said the NSF CAREER award is reflective of the years of work done to this point. "It opens new perspectives and gives me the opportunity not only to contribute to the research in the field, but also to potentially make a difference in the education of students in the United States and worldwide," she said.

Mihalcea has also recently received a second grant from Google to support her work on the extraction and use of categorical information for books. The project builds upon research carried out for the past three years in UNT's Language and Information Technology group on the extraction of important information from books, which was also funded by Google. She has also received other grants from NSF and the Texas Advanced Research Program in support of her research in natural language processing.

Padilla and Mihalcea join Angela Wilson, and Mohammed Omary, UNT associate professors of chemistry, as winners of the NSF CAREER awards.

"The awards received by professors Padilla and Mihalcea are a testament to the quality of research performed at UNT. Coming on the heels of assistant chemistry professor Guido Verbeck receiving the Air Force Young Investigator Award last fall, it is unprecedented that three of our young faculty have received these awards in one year," said Vish Prasad, UNT vice president of research and economic development.

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108

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