UW News

February 15, 2018

Five UW scientists awarded Sloan Fellowships for early-career research

UW News

Five 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. 15, include Maya Cakmak, assistant professor of computer science and engineering; Jiun-Haw Chu, assistant professor of clean energy and physics; Arka Majumdar, assistant professor of electrical engineering and physics; Jessica Werk, assistant professor of astronomy; and Chelsea Wood, assistant professor of aquatic and fishery sciences.

Open to scholars in eight scientific and technical fields — chemistry, computer science, economics, mathematics, molecular biology, neuroscience, ocean sciences and physics — the fellowships honor those early-career researchers whose achievements mark them as the next generation of scientific leaders.

The 126 Sloan Fellows for 2018 were selected in close coordination with the research community. Candidates are nominated by their peers, and fellows are selected by independent panels of senior scholars based on each candidate’s research accomplishments, creativity and potential to become a leader in his or her field. Each fellow will receive $65,000 to apply toward research endeavors.

This year’s fellows come from 53 institutions across the United States and Canada, spanning fields from evolutionary biology to data science. The new Sloan Fellows at the UW reflect this diversity, probing complex questions in robotics, quantum physics and the formation of the galaxy.

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Maya CakmakUniversity of Washington

Cakmak, for example, directs the Human-Centered Robotics Lab, where she studies human-robot interactions, end-user programming and assistive robotics. She aims to develop robots that can be programmed and controlled by diverse users.

“It’s about packaging robot capabilities at the right level and creating the right interface for different users,” said Cakmak.

Rather than aiming for a one-size-fits-all robot, Cakmak argues for customizing each robot to the unique needs, preferences and environments of users. Today, only expert roboticists can do that sort of customization. Cakmak aims to make robot programming accessible to a much wider audience. She believes this could be the key to mass adoption of robots and democratize “robot programming” jobs of the future.


Jiun-Haw ChuUniversity of Washington

Chu, of the Clean Energy Institute,  focuses on the synthesis and characterization of materials with unconventional electronic and magnetic ground states, such as high-temperature superconductors and topological insulators. Simply put, Chu manufactures materials and measures their properties.

“My goal is to find more materials of this kind and study their properties to find why they come out this way, or if there are additional hidden properties that people don’t know about,” said Chu.

The goal is to understand and control these emergent quantum behaviors and apply them to energy and information technology.


Arka MajumdarUniversity of Washington

Majumdar, a researcher with the Molecular Engineering & Sciences Institute, is at the forefront of the interdisciplinary research that combines quantum materials and nanophotonics. His research attempts to store light in an optical resonator to study its tiniest components. Majumdar is setting out to build quantum systems using light that can mimic the interactions between electrons in many of today’s technologies. That would pave the way for new materials and optical nano-structures that could revolutionize computing. Developing these technologies, however, can be very difficult.

“Our plan is to engineer new materials and new optical nanostructures to make photons interact with each other, which is a key element for performing computation with light, be it quantum or classical computing,” said Majumdar.


Jessica WerkUniversity of Washington

Werk is a kind of galaxy historian, studying matter on atomic scales to help understand how galaxies — and the universe as a whole — evolve. By aiming giant telescopes at the night’s sky, she uses spectrographs to study atoms billions of light years away. Werk looks at the distinction between subatomic particles that exist both outside and inside galaxies. The outcome, she hopes, will help elucidate a better understanding of our own cosmic origins.

“When I look at the sky I see lots of different atomic transitions that I’m trying to piece together into a coherent picture,” said Werk.


Chelsea WoodUniversity of Washington

Wood’s research explores the ecology of parasites and pathogens in a changing world. She is interested in how human impacts on ecosystems affect the transmission of parasites. Wood’s work has shown that disruption can alter what kinds of parasites are common and rare — increasing the abundance of some kinds of parasites and decreasing the abundance of others. The Sloan Fellowship will allow Wood and her team to look back in time at how parasite transmission changed as industrialization intensified human impacts on the oceans. She’ll accomplish this by examining parasites preserved in museum specimens — mainly fish floating perennially in ethanol — including many that are more than a century old.

“These fish are basically parasite time capsules,” said Wood.

By developing time profiles of parasite abundance, Wood will provide the world’s first glimpse of what parasite communities might have been like in a more “pristine” ocean.


For more information, contact Jackson Holtz at the UW News Office at 206-543-2580 or jjholtz@uw.edu.