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Celebrating Utah State University's Exceptional Young Scientists

Thursday, Aug. 25, 2011

National Science Foundation logo illustration
USU NSF CAREER award recipients

Utah State University's National Science Foundation CAREER Award recipients since 2010 include (top left to bottom) Peter Alder, Brian Belland, Sean Johnson, Victor Lee, Tony Lowry, Claudia Radel, Tammy Rittenour, Ethan White and Chris Winstead.

Nine of Utah State University’s younger faculty members are making news at the national level for groundbreaking research. Whether they are researching climate change, how to improve education or studying wireless networks used to cure neural injuries, this rising crop of young faculty has one thing in common, they are all recipients of the National Science Foundation’s CAREER Award.

NSF CAREER awards are given to outstanding junior faculty who demonstrate their research has the potential to have an impact in their fields. In particular, CAREER awards support the early career development of those who are most likely to become the academic leaders of the 21st century.

“These “CAREER” awards are among some of the most prestigious awards granted by the National Science Foundation,” said Raymond T. Coward, executive vice president and provost of USU. “As a research institution, USU is known for its seasoned researchers who are some of the most well-established, internationally-known experts in their fields.This group of NSF “CAREER” awardees will be the next generation of researchers to make groundbreaking discoveries.”

At USU, nine young faculty have received CAREER awards since January 2010. This is the highest total number of faculty receiving the award at one institution among all of USU’s Regent peer institutions that include all Western land-grant universities and the universities of Nebraska and Kansas State. The awards have added to a record-breaking amount of more than $213 million in external funding USU received in fiscal year 2011, a record 47.4 percent increase over funding in 2009.

“Utah State University just closed a record year of attracting research support for a world-class faculty, and these CAREER Awards reflect the extraordinary quality of our new faculty hires,” said Mark McLellan, USU’s vice president for research and dean of the school of graduate studies.

As a land-grant institution, USU is dedicated to teaching, research and a commitment to meeting the needs of society. McLellan said the CAREER awards celebrate the university’s exceptional young scientists who fulfill these ideals.

“The CAREER awards are a beacon to everyone that this university is a leading research institution dedicated to world-class education taught by leading researchers,” he said.

Researchers receiving CAREER awards since January 2010 include Peter Adler, ecology; Brian Belland, instructional technology and learning sciences; Sean Johnson, biochemistry; Victor Lee, instructional technology and learning sciences; Tony Lowry, geophysics; Claudia Radel, environment and society; Tammy Rittenour, geology; Ethan White, ecology; and Chris Winstead, electrical and computer engineering.

“The CAREER awards further emphasize the caliber and high-quality of our young faculty,” said Coward. “It illustrates our national competitiveness and is something of which we should all be proud.”

CAREER Awards provide funding for up to five years to support a recipient’s proposed research and teaching project.

Peter Adler, who investigates plant population and community dynamics, is trying to understand what causes different plant species to increase or decrease in abundance over time. He’s using clues from the past to forecast the effects of future climate change on plant communities.

“We’re delighted that Peter (Adler) has received this highly competitive award,” said Nat Frazer, dean of USU’s College of Natural Resources. “The future of the university depends in large part upon the quality of faculty we are able to attract. As this award demonstrates, Peter is one who can help us secure a bright future for USU and the College of Natural Resources.”

CAREER recipient Tammy Rittenour is studying arroyos in southern Utah to determine their occurrence in history. Arroyos are deep, flat-bottomed channels with steep walls of sediment. Rittenour credits her success in securing funding, in part, to her participation in the USU Office of the Vice President for Research’s NSF CAREER grant writing workshops in 2010.

“It’s important for us to discover what’s causing arroyo cycles so we can predict what the future holds,” Rittenour said.

Victor Lee’s NSF CAREER work involves working with elementary schools and students to explore the potential of Physical Activity Data (PAD) devices and software tools, such as heart rate monitors or accelerometers, for learning about elementary statistics.

“Dr. Lee is passionate about helping students to learn more effectively and in more motivating ways by tapping into emerging technologies,” said Mimi Recker, department head of Instructional Technology and Learning Sciences. “The prestigious award from NSF will support Dr. Lee’s innovative research program, help attract and fund high quality doctoral students, as well as support the development of new seminars for graduate students at USU.”

Four NSF CAREER recipients hail from the College of Science and that is a wonderful sign for the future of the college and the university, said College of Science Dean Jim MacMahon.

“Ethan (White), Sean (Johnson), Tammy (Rittenour) and Tony (Lowry) bring honor to all of us and saying ‘congratulations’ cannot convey how proud I am to be associated with these outstanding scientists who excel in teaching and research,” MacMahon said.

Chris Winstead’s CAREER-supported work studies very low power communications devices that can be implanted in the human body. In theory these devices may stimulate the human brain, and even provide artificial limbs with tactile sensation, for example. This will allow data to be transmitted out of the body or allow control parameters to be transmitted into the body using communication devices that can last for years without the batteries wearing out.

“This is possible because Dr. Winstead’s work deals with reliable communication using extremely efficient and fast circuits,” said Electrical and Computer Engineering Department Head Todd Moon. “Chris Winstead is one of the few people in the world who is approaching the problem this way, and it has potential for tremendous breakthroughs.”

For more information about CAREER and other NSF awards at Utah State University, visit the website.


Forecasting Climate Change

Peter Adler
Wildland Resources

Variations in rainfall and temperature aren’t the only factors plants must cope with when it comes to climate change — reactions of neighboring species can matter too. Adler’s NSF CAREER research combines long-term observational data, mathematical models and field experiments to test predictions about the nature of species interactions and how they modify the direct impacts of climate change. A second goal of the project is to use a series of graduate seminars to improve communication between researchers and land managers, who are under increasing pressure to consider climate change impacts in land-use, but lack access to relevant scientific information.

Improving Education

Brian Belland

Instructional Technology and Learning Sciences

Reading, writing and arithmetic are known as the traditional skills developed in a middle school classroom, but just as important may be the ability to argue. USU NSF CAREER researcher Brian Belland has developed the Connection Log, a powerful computer technology that takes students through the construction of an argument — from determining the central problem to finding relevant evidence and synthesizing information to construct a sound argument. Students work through the program and can compare their work to arguments built by peers. The Connection Log is being tested and optimized among 325 middle school students in three school districts in Utah and Idaho.

Decoding Enzymes

Sean Johnson

Chemistry and Biochemistry

To understand biology, you need to understand its structure. CAREER award recipient Sean Johnson harnesses the power of X-ray crystallography to make the underlying structures of biological processes crystal clear. X-ray crystallography is the workhorse for determining protein structures. Johnson is studying a specific ribonucleic acid (RNA) protein called the “Mtr4” helicase, an enzyme that monitors the quality of RNA molecules. Like a zipper on a coat, Mtr4 separates RNA strands to prepare them for destruction. The process initiated by Mtr4 is critical to biological cell function and vitality.

Teaching with Technology

Victor Lee
Instructional Technology and Learning Sciences

Lee’s NSF CAREER project involves a program of educational research using state-of-the-art physical activity sensor devices as tools for students to collect and analyze data about themselves. The project investigates how embodied and familiar data can be used to improve children’s understanding of elementary statistics and data analysis processes. The research introduces a new class of technologies that Lee refers to as Physical Activity Data (PAD) devices, such as heart rate monitors or accelerometers, into elementary schools. The work will encourage schools to think about cutting-edge ways of conceptualizing how technology is used for teaching and learning

Probing the Depths

Tony Lowry


Current efforts to predict earthquakes are similar to what weather forecasting was like in the 19th century. Earthquakes, mountain-building and other effects of continental tectonics depend on how rocks flow miles beneath our feet, but scientists don’t yet have the tools to reach into the Earth’s depths and measure properties needed to understand these processes. NSF CAREER researcher Tony Lowry is developing new geophysical tools to remotely sense rock composition, temperature and water flux to help answer questions. The research Lowry is pursuing could shed new light on the earthquake cycle and the evolution of stress on faults and why mountain chains form where they do.

International Labor Migration and the Environment

Claudia Radel

Environment and Society

Labor migration across international borders continues to grow and is an increasingly important livelihood strategy for households around the world. Radel, a human geographer, will explore the role of gender, and specific and varying gendered migration patterns, in shaping the impacts of international labor migration on land use. The project also will analyze what role local environmental change plays as a driver of current patterns of labor migration. Over a five-year period, Radel and her team will conduct research in southern Mexico, highland Guatemala and northern Nicaragua. Findings will facilitate positive outcomes in human and environmental well-being in the contemporary interconnected world.

Looking at Layers of the Past to Determine the Future

Tammy Rittenour

Southern Utah’s landscape is dramatic and tells many stories of the past. Arroyos, or deep, flat-bottomed channels with steep walls of sediment, show an interesting slice of history that may help USU NSF CAREER funded researcher Rittenour determine the future. Between periods of rapid incision, arroyos appear to follow prolonged aggradation or “filling” periods. The question is: What’s driving these cycles of rapid entrenchment followed by slower rates of sedimentation and infilling? Rittenour is developing a detailed and well-dated stratigraphic record of past cut-fill cycles at six adjoining semi-arid drainages in southern Utah using optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) and radiocarbon dating.

Seeing the Big Picture

Ethan White


A macroecologist, NSF CAREER researcher Ethan White looks at “the big picture,” investigating how climate change, invasive species and other important factors impact ecological systems at continental to global scales. Scientists have access to a large number of accurate, macroecological datasets from sources all over the world but have no way of consolidating this vast ocean of data. Reaching beyond biology, White proposes an interdisciplinary approach to predict major ecological patterns from diverse datasets. White’s plan is to develop web-based tools to automate complicated and cumbersome database tasks and allow ecologists to rapidly determine whether or not certain patterns are evident at global scales.

Networking the Body

Chris Winstead

Electrical & Computer Engineering

Thanks to NSF CAREER researcher Chris Winstead, wireless networks may soon be used to cure blindness and other neural injuries. Using low-energy electronics for bio-implantable devices, Winstead is working to create artificial communication networks that can bypass damaged neural circuits in the body. Winstead’s research would allow an implanted network to be inserted in the body and directly stimulate the brain’s visual cortex. The network would transmit neural signals across the injury site at a very low power, similar to a pacemaker. Winstead is working to make this technology robust against outside stimuli, such as metal detectors and cell phone towers, while keeping it very low power, minimizing excess heat against body tissue.

Contacts: Mark McLellan, (435) 797-1180,; and Raymond Coward (435) 797-1167,

Writer: Maren Cartwright (435) 797-1355,,with excerpts from Anna McEntire, and Mary-Ann Muffoletto,

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