Two Young ECE Researchers Awarded Presidential Career Awards

July 14, 2009

Two Duke University engineers have received the highest honor given to scientists by the U.S. government.

Adrienne Stiff-RobertsAdrienne Stiff-Roberts and Chris Dwyer, both assistant professors of electrical and computer engineering at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, each received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). The awards are intended recognize young investigators and support them in the early stages of their independent research careers.

The award also carries up to $1 million in research support over five years. Stiff-Roberts and Dwyer will officially receive the awards during a White House ceremony this fall.

This year, 100 young investigators were honored with PECASE awards. Of the latest group of scientists, President Barrack Obama said: “These extraordinarily gifted young scientists and engineers represent the best in our country. With their talent, creativity, and dedication, I am confident that they will lead their fields in new breakthroughs and discoveries and help us use science and technology to lift up our nation and our world.”

Agencies across the federal government participate in the PECASE program, including such departments as agriculture, defense, energy and commerce, as well as the National Science Foundation, National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Institutes of health. Stiff-Roberts was recommended by Office of Naval Research and Dwyer was recommended by the Department of Defense’s Army Research Office.

“This is a great honor,” Stiff-Roberts said. “I am extremely pleased that two faculty members in our department were recognized for their work. In a larger sense, these awards are also a reflection of the quality of work being done in Duke’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.”

Stiff-Roberts, who earlier this year received the 2009 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Early Career Award in Nanotechnology, focuses developing sensors using novel nanoparticles.

"This award will support our work on developing hybrid nanomaterials for multiple applications," she said. "In particular, I proposed the investigation of photovoltaic solar cells using hybrid nanocomposites and multi-functional sensors, such as piezoelectric sensors using zinc oxide nanoparticles, magnetic sensors using iron oxide nanoparticles, and plasmonic sensors using gold nanoparticles."

Stiff-Roberts joined the engineering faculty in 2004 after earning a Ph.D. in applied physics from the University of Michigan.

Chris DwyerLike Stiff-Roberts, Dwyer also joined the Duke faculty in 2004 and also works in the nano-world. The goal of his research is to create novel sensing devices with many potential applications. Not only can these sensors be “programmed” to seek out specific targets, but they can inexpensively assemble themselves by the millions.

For example, this research may one day lead to a single test for pregnant women that measures levels of all the hormones, proteins, and other compounds doctors use to determine health and risk factors associated with a pregnancy. The sensors may also be able to analyze a single blood sample to determine which of the dozens of proteins associated with different forms of cancer are present.

If these sensors prove sensitive enough, they might even be used to test for the presence of particular genetic sequences in samples of DNA, Dwyer said. If so, that could potentially open a new route for sequencing DNA at a fraction of the cost of today's technologies.

“In our project, we also want to be able to fuse computational techniques with these sensors to come up with better sensing systems,” Dwyer said. "We're bringing computation to a length scale and domain where it hasn't been possible before. This award is important because it provides the resources we need to develop this new circuit technology and to apply it to a spectrum of problems that are relevant and timely.”

Dwyer, who completed his graduate work at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, also received a young investigator award from the Army Research Office last year and is a member of the 2009 DARPA Computer Science Study Group.

PECASE awards, established by President Clinton in February 1996, are coordinated by the Office of Science and Technology Policy within the Executive Office of the President. Awardees are selected on the basis of two criteria: Pursuit of innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology and a commitment to community service as demonstrated through scientific leadership, public education, or community outreach.