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College of Liberal Arts

University of Mississippi

College Faculty Recognized with CAREER Awards

Three current faculty members in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Mississippi are holders of the National Science Foundation’s prestigious Early Career Development (CAREER) Award.  The award supports those who most effectively integrate research and education within the context of the mission of their organization.

“I am overjoyed,” said Emanuele Berti, assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, who received the award this spring for his research on black holes. “CAREER awards are very competitive. This year only about 15 percent of the applicants, many of them from the most prestigious research institutions in the United States, received an award. Now I must work to live up to the expectations in terms of research quality, education and outreach.”

In addition to Berti, Tamar Goulet, associate professor of biology, received the award in 2008; and Nathan Hammer, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, received it in 2010.

“The NSF recognizes one’s ability in research and in education, a recognition that is rewarding and fulfilling,” Goulet said. “I knew that my career would forever be changed by receiving this CAREER award.”

Goulet’s research is focused on octocorals in the Caribbean.  “Octocorals are the dominant corals on Caribbean reefs, and yet knowledge about them is meager,” she said. “My research will provide key information on octocorals, their physiology and their ability to cope with global climate change.”

In addition to research, awards include educational components. For Goulet, that means teaching a symbiosis course in the biology department, and next year, she will work with teachers in K-12 schools to explain the topic of symbiosis to students. Symbiosis can be defined as “the living together of a minimum of two individuals from two species,” Goulet said.

Berti’s CAREER award supports UM research on the physics and astrophysics of binary systems containing black holes and/or neutrons stars (compact binaries). These systems are among the most promising sources of gravitational waves to be detected by present and future gravitational-wave observatories, such as the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, known as LIGO, and the space-based Laser Interferometer Space Antenna.

“One of the main challenges in gravitational-wave data analysis consists of extracting the signal emitted by the system from the noisy detector output,” Berti said. “For the extraction to be successful, accurate theoretical ‘template’ waveforms of the signal are needed. This research will improve theoretical knowledge of gravitational waveforms from merging compact binaries using a combination of analytical techniques, such as the so-called post-Newtonian approximation and black hole perturbation theory, and numerical simulations.”

A primary goal of the new CAREER award is to promote scientific education in Mississippi and the recruitment of minorities in the physical sciences.

Cecille Labuda and Emanuele Berti plan to staff a booth at the Global Competitiveness Through Diversity Conference to promote minority recruitment in physics this September.

“Black hole and gravitational wave astronomy are fascinating topics for college students,” Berti said. “Building on the successful outreach efforts of Dr. (Marco) Cavaglia’s group, I propose a five-year outreach program to engage junior colleges and community colleges and to promote scientific literacy throughout the state.”

The program will consist of lectures, multimedia presentations, hands-on physics demonstrations, visits to the UM campus and to the LIGO gravitational-wave interferometer in Louisiana. Historically black colleges and universities, community colleges and schools in the Mississippi Delta will particularly be targeted.

Last year, Hammer received the CAREER award to spectroscopically track the evolution of noncovalent interactions from the single molecule level to the condensed phases.

“What that means is that my research group and I study how molecules interact with each other in a variety of environments,” he said. “The molecules we study include biological building blocks and synthetic precursors. My students and I employ laser-based methods to study how these molecules interact at the single molecule level (one molecule at a time), in the gas phase, and in the liquid and solid states. Our goal is to paint a complete picture of how intermolecular interactions change with environment and how that affects the properties of important systems.”

An integral part of Hammer’s award was his direction of the Physical Chemistry Summer Research program. Over the summer, more than thirty faculty, staff, and undergraduate and graduate students participate in mini-courses and present lectures on their collaborative theoretical and experimental research areas.

Hammer, Berti and Goulet all recognize the importance of the award, not only for themselves but also for the university they represent. “Winning this award is a tremendous honor to both myself and to the University of Mississippi because it suggests that I have excelled as both teacher and scholar and that Ole Miss fosters an environment where young faculty can succeed at a national level of excellence,” Hammer said.