July 30, 2012
DARPA mentors Young Faculty Award recipients in pursuit of science and mathematics breakthroughs
Innovation requires latitude to experiment and freedom to explore without fear of failure. Strategic innovation requires experimentation with a purpose. Every year since 2006, DARPA has awarded grants to promising academic scientists, engineers and mathematicians to foster strategic innovation in a defense context and, in the process, enhance basic research at colleges and universities throughout the United States. Under the auspices of the Young Faculty Awards (YFA) program, DARPA hopes to develop the next generation of researchers in key defense-related disciplines and encourage them to focus a significant portion of their careers on defense issues.
This year DARPA welcomes 51 recipients, hailing from 18 states and 34 academic institutions, who will each apply $300,000 grants over two years to a wide spectrum of basic research in areas spanning physical sciences, materials, mathematics and biology. Though the sponsored research is not expected to feed directly into DARPA programs, faculty and projects are selected in part for their potential to seed future breakthroughs in defense-related research areas. In fact, members of the 2006-2010 YFA classes participate in 27 recent or ongoing DARPA programs.
“The Young Faculty Awards are a pipeline that connects early career researchers to DARPA programs where their ideas for novel research might take root and grow over time into new capabilities,” said Bill Casebeer, a DARPA program manager and director of the YFA program. “DARPA’s aim is to channel existing expertise by funding basic research, mentoring tenure-track individuals and helping them build their networks to bridge academics, defense and industry. We measure success not through development of specific capabilities, but through expanding a base of scientific knowledge and human capital that will serve as building blocks for future efforts.”
The leeway granted to YFA recipients to pursue innovative ideas is given in recognition of the fact that technological breakthroughs often result from cross-collaboration among disciplines and operating outside of commonly accepted disciplinary boundaries. YFA is designed to support that business model.
“The challenging budgetary climate in which researchers currently operate makes it harder to justify risks for a lot of the organizations that help the United States to maintain its technological edge. However, budget concerns don’t alleviate our need to keep pressing forward and exploring,” said Jay Schnitzer, Director of DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office. “DARPA’s mission is to prevent and create strategic surprise, so it is incumbent on the Agency to invest in the people, research and technologies that will keep us successful in that mission.”
Ideas nurtured through YFA have shaped research in six DARPA programs to date, on top of their contributions to advancing basic science. At the same time, grant recipients experience professional benefits in their academic careers.
For example, YFA recipient Dr. Howard Salis at Pennsylvania State University developed predictive biophysical models to design synthetic DNA sequences for biotechnology applications, including the therapeutic nucleic acids that regulate protein expression across many bacterial species. These medicines are a potential alternative to antibiotics. His lab's advanced methods for designing synthetic DNA are available to the scientific community at http://salis.psu.edu/software.
YFA recipient Dr. Martin Zwierlein of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology studies ultra-cold gases near absolute zero temperature. In Fermi gases, atoms team up in pairs that can flow without friction; this has direct analogy to electron pairs in superconductors, which transport current without resistance. Dr. Zwierlein’s YFA research could ultimately provide insight into the unsolved problem of high-Tc superconductivity. He is currently expanding on his research in DARPA's Optical Lattice Emulator program.
A record 560 researchers applied to YFA in 2012, marking a 38% increase over the 2011 applicant pool; applicants represented 46 states and territories, and 150 universities. DARPA selected 51 applicants to receive grants totaling approximately $15.3 million, representing the largest class of awardees since the program began. Each grant recipient will receive approximately $150,000 per year for two years.
“The world’s best and brightest are applying new ideas to advance the sciences and develop technologies which could prove to be very useful to deployed servicemembers. This year we are funding scholars investigating topics ranging from the latest developments in quantum theory to novel synthetic biology research,” Casebeer said.
A complete list of the 2012 Young Faculty Award recipients and research topics is available at http://go.usa.gov/Gxc.
YFA is open to U.S. citizens and non-citizens employed by a U.S. research institution. The YFA solicitation is published annually on FBO.gov and at Grants.gov.
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