UW News

February 23, 2016

Four UW scientists awarded Sloan Fellowships for early-career research

UW News

Four faculty members at the University of Washington have been awarded early-career fellowships from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The new Sloan Fellows, announced Feb. 23, include Bingni Brunton, assistant professor of biology; Christopher Laumann, assistant professor of physics; Matthew McQuinn, assistant professor of astronomy; and Emina Torlak, assistant professor of computer science and engineering.

The 126 Sloan Fellows for 2016 were nominated by senior colleagues in their field, department or institution. Committees with the Sloan Foundation then examined each nominee’s research goals, publications and achievements and ultimately selected the winners. Each fellow will receive $55,000 to apply toward research endeavors. This year’s fellows come from 52 institutions across the United States and Canada, spanning fields from mathematics to biochemistry. The new Sloan Fellows at the UW reflect this diversity, probing complex questions from neuroscience to quantum mechanics.

The wide view of history

UW assistant professor of astronomy Matthew McQuinn

UW assistant professor of astronomy Matthew McQuinn.Greg Scheiderer

Astronomer McQuinn‘s objective is to understand the influence of history on our present day, but not the Battle of Trafalgar or the Industrial Revolution. McQuinn is a theoretical astrophysicist who is trying to understand the drastic changes our universe underwent in its first billion years. In order to understand why the universe is structured as it is today, some 13 billion years after the Big Bang, McQuinn believes we must understand two significant transitions it went through when hot and dense material cooled and expanded rapidly. In the first event, when the universe was about 400,000 years old, the soup of electrons and protons produced in the Big Bang formed hydrogen atoms, liberating trapped light and making the universe transparent. Several hundred million years later, electrons from that same hydrogen became ionized by light from the first stars and galaxies as gravity began to shape the universe.

“We know very little about this period in history,” said McQuinn. “Yet it had a huge impact on where stars and galaxies are, what the material is between them and why the universe evolved into its present form.”

The quest for automation in software development

UW assistant professor of computer science & engineering Emina Torlak.

UW assistant professor of computer science & engineering Emina Torlak.Dennis Wise

In the Department of Computer Science & Engineering, Torlak focuses on techniques for developing the software of tomorrow. Many of today’s technological marvels, from smartphones to space probes, rely on software that is developed manually by experts, at great cost. Torlak’s focus is on applying automated reasoning to key aspects of software development, making it easier and faster to produce software that will run reliably and efficiently.

To that end, she has developed Rosette, a programming language that makes automated reasoning available to a wide range of programmers. Rosette helps programmers automatically synthesize, verify and debug code.  It has been applied to synthesizing software that will power the next generation of ultra-low-power electronics and to verifying safety-critical software that drives state-of-the-art medical devices.

The next computer

UW assistant professor of physics Christopher Laumann.

UW assistant professor of physics Christopher Laumann.Anushya Chandran

Physicist Laumann is also focused on the future of computation, but on a decidedly smaller scale.  A theorist, he works on the promise of quantum computing and the challenges of designing and building a working quantum computer.

“Quantum computers would operate on the principles of quantum mechanics,” said Laumann. “Successfully designing one of these devices would represent a mastery of the laws of physics and potentially revolutionize the power of computation.”

We live in a universe structured on the principles of quantum mechanics, the infinitesimally small interactions that govern the size, behavior and properties of all known subatomic particles. But all of our current methods for computation — from calculations to information transmission — are based on the large-scale interactions among atoms and other particles. Exploiting the fundamental properties of quantum mechanics would unlock the potential for algorithms, calculations and computational power that are simply impossible today, but also requires mastering the physical interactions of individual particles on a large scale.

“But controlling these interactions on such a large scale gets exponentially difficult,” said Laumann. “We need theories to develop new hardware and processes to trap, manipulate and control these particles, which is one of the goals of my research.”

And the computer within

UW assistant professor of biology Bingni Brunton.

UW assistant professor of biology Bingni Brunton.Bingni Brunton

For biologist and data scientist Brunton, a member of the UW Institute for Neuroengineering and data-science fellow with the UW eScience Institute, computer-based methods could be the key to understanding how our brains process information, make decisions and execute tasks from walking to speaking.

“The cells in your brain literally talk to each other using electricity,” said Brunton. “The way you experience the world, produce sensations, reason and experience emotion are all built on a foundation of electrical processes going on within and between brain cells.”

Brunton’s research focuses on understanding how this electrical information is translated into computational processes. Scientists use electrodes to measure and record the electrical activity among groups of neurons and individual neurons in the brain. Brunton takes this information, recorded from human patients as well as research animals like mice and rats, and deciphers the computational processes that underlie this electrical activity.

“I want to understand what this very large collection of cells are saying and how they’re saying it,” said Brunton.

It’s a process that unfolded within her own brain when UW professor Toby Bradshaw, the chair of the Department of Biology, informed Brunton that she had been named a Sloan Fellow for 2016.

“I didn’t believe it at first,” said Brunton. “I made him show me the email announcing it.”