National Science Foundation honors three UNT researchers with CAREER awards

Wednesday, May 8, 2024 - 11:23
 Yuan Li, Xiao Li and Yuanxi Wang
Yuan Li, Xiao Li and Yuanxi Wang

DENTON (UNT), Texas — Three University of North Texas assistant professors in the College of Engineering and College of Science have earned more than $1.8 million in total grants through the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development Program.

The NSF CAREER award is the most prestigious recognition for early career research faculty. It is granted to selected tenured-track faculty who haven’t earned tenure and whose scholarly products have a high impact in their discipline and/or on society. Including its most recent honorees, UNT has 25 researchers who have earned NSF CAREER awards over the years.

The most recent recipients include Yuan Li (physics), Xiao Li (materials science and engineering) and Yuanxi Wang (physics). Over the next five years, they will use their grants to tackle research in areas ranging from unlocking new possibilities with liquid crystals to template nucleation and growth of inorganic species; furthering the understanding of supermassive black holes and investigating molecular defects in solid materials for quantum devices.

“We’re honored that so many UNT faculty across various research areas have been recognized with NSF CAREER awards,” said Pamela Padilla, UNT vice president of research and innovation and a past recipient of the NSF CAREER award. “These awards will be transformative not only for advancing faculty in their careers but also in offering opportunities for our community and for students to conduct enriching research experiences within their labs.”

Yuan Li

Award Total: $601,796

Research: Li, who specializes in using computer simulations to study physical processes in the universe, will examine the evolution of massive galaxies. Using the newly developed astrophysics simulation tool Enzo-E, she’ll look at how black holes evolve and impact their host galaxies as well as how massive galaxies influence the behavior of the smaller satellite galaxies around them.

Li and her students will create a new model for growth and feedback of supermassive black holes that they’ll make publicly available to other scholars to help expand knowledge even further. “As humans, we want to know where we come from and where we’re going,” Li said. “This research will help answer some fundamental questions about our universe and how it evolved.”

Education: Li will continue developing astronomy courses for both undergraduate and graduate students to help expand UNT’s astronomy program, which already has seen significant growth in the last four years. She’ll also be printing 3D models of astronomy-related concepts to use in her community engagement efforts and setting up an exhibition in UNT’s Environmental Science Building. “I think this is a very interesting way to visualize data and to engage students because they can touch the models and experience these cosmological structures in a different way,” Li said.

Yuanxi Wang

Award Total: $545,391

Research: Wang, who studies computational materials theory for 2D layered nanomaterials, will develop computer algorithms to identify defects in solid materials with physical properties suitable for quantum devices, which includes a range of technologies from quantum computers to magnetic field sensors.

Wang will focus his research on two properties related to how atomic vibrations affect light absorption and how quickly defect spins can change states following light absorption. He’ll then work with external research collaborators to put his computations on the defects into practice by realizing them in experimental labs and deriving more complex defects. “Once you understand simple defects as fundamental building blocks, you can more controllably combine them into more complex structures, making the design of defects more efficient,” Wang said. “We hope our research can accelerate technological innovation by broadening the design space and delivering rational design rules for quantum devices.”

Education: By designing a workshop dedicated to scientific paper reading comprehension, Wang hopes to better prepare students from the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science at UNT to take an active role early in their summer research experiences. Wang is experimenting with using virtual reality as well to immerse the public into his research. “You can go to a planetarium to experience the massiveness of the solar system, but you rarely get that same immersive experience for nanosystems,” Wang said. “It’s usually hard for people to wrap their head around what we model, but I hope through VR we can change that and allow people to step inside a crystal structure and see atoms and defects up close.”

Xiao Li

Award Total: $715,009

Research: Li, who focuses her research on nanostructure design, including the self-assembly of softer materials such as polymers, liquid crystals, colloidal particles and elastomers, will investigate new strategies for developing revolutionary chiral materials. Chirality is a geometric property of a molecule or structure that cannot be superimposed on its mirror image. It is prevalent in the human body with DNA and proteins and used in fields such as mechanical and biological engineering.

Li will build a fundamental understanding of the chemical reactions, physical behavior and structural engineering involved in transforming liquid crystals with multi-scale chiral structures into hybrid or fully inorganic materials that have chirality. “The rapidly growing market for miniaturized device technologies requires materials with integrated flexibility as well as superior optical and mechanical performance at micro/nanoscale precision,” Li said. “The chiral materials we propose to develop will have all of these attributes, making them a viable option for further innovating in miniaturization.”

Education: Through community outreach, workshops and summer research opportunities, Li will raise awareness about soft matter science and engineering and inspire the next generation of professionals in the field. Educational plans include a workshop introducing UNT students to Li’s research and offering a tour of the Materials Research Facility at UNT’s Discovery Park. Li will provide summer research experiences in her lab as well for undergraduate students from Texas Woman’s University and Midwestern State University, two area institutions that don’t currently offer graduate programs in materials science and engineering. Finally, Li will organize a networking event for professionals in soft matter science and engineering to talk about their research and career paths and give students a tangible idea of what their future could look like in the field. “If students can see what future they can have, they can better devote themselves to the field,” Li said.


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