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Recognizing U of T’s rising stars

Sloan Research Fellowships reward six faculty members for early-career achievements

If winning a Nobel Prize is like winning an Oscar for lifetime achievement, the six University of Toronto scholars awarded Sloan Research Fellowships today must feel as though they’ve been nominated rising stars for their debut films.

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation named U of T’s Artur Izmaylov, Natalie Enright Jerger, Julie Lefebvre, Jacob Tsimerman, Daniel Wigdor and Hau-tieng Wu among 126 outstanding young researchers from across Canada and the United States. The US $50,000 prizes are given to early-career scientists and scholars whose achievements and potential identify them as among the next generation of scientific leaders.

The six U of T researchers tipped to contribute substantially to their respective fields are among only eight recipients at Canadian universities, and their research explores a wide range of topics:

  • Artur Izmaylov (Department of Physical & Environmental Sciences,  UTSC) focuses on understanding and modeling chemical dynamics involving multiple electronic states in molecules and materials. Such processes are ubiquitous in solar energy harvesting, photoactive protein functioning and catalytic reactions on metallic surfaces.
  • Natalie Enright Jerger (Edward S. Rogers Sr. Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering) investigates more efficient ways for networks on computer processor chips to communicate as computing systems grow larger and more complex. She focuses on tackling three challenges: improving communication between cores, caches and memory, streamlining caching protocols and improving parallel programming.
  • Julie Lefebvre (Department of Molecular Genetics and The Hospital for Sick Children) aims to identify mechanisms of neural circuit development in the healthy brain, and to understand how changes in these mechanisms contribute to abnormal brain function and neurodevelopmental disorders. Her focus is studying cellular strategies and molecular pathways that shape neurons and direct their assembly into neural circuits, and testing how defects in connectivity patterns cause circuit function defects.
  • Jacob Tsimerman (Department of Mathematics) works at estimating how many solutions there are to a system of polynomial equations using integers –whole numbers that do not have a fractional or decimal component. His work is rooted in the fundamental concepts of number theory and algebraic mathematics.
  • Daniel Wigdor (Department of Computer Science, Department of Mathematical & Computational Sciences (UTM), Department of Mechanical & Industrial Engineering) explores human-computer interaction and specifically how to remove the delay experienced when using smartphones and tablets. Computing performance has improved significantly in recent decades though the delay of touchscreens has stalled at 100 milliseconds, which is why they feel ‘springy’. Wigdor wants to reduce that response time and make digital devices feel more like physical ones –like writing on real paper.
  • Hau-tieng Wu (Department of Mathematics) focuses on mathematical study and statistical big data analysis and their medical applications, particularly in the areas of anesthesia/sedation/sleep analysis based on different physiological signals, breathing/heart-rate variation analysis and coupling effect, ECG waveform analysis, as well as seasonal diseases.

Enright Jerger says it is rare for researchers in her particular area of computer architecture to receive a Sloan Fellowship. “I wasn’t expecting it when I heard the news,” she said. “I was thrilled. It’s a great honour.”

Awarded annually since 1955, Sloan Research Fellowships are awarded in eight scientific and technical fields – chemistry, computer science, economics, mathematics, evolutionary and computational molecular biology, neuroscience, ocean sciences, and physics. Recipients are often in their first appointments to university faculties and are working to set up laboratories and establish independent research projetcs.

“Carrying on a research agenda today means building great teams,” said Wigdor. “I hope this recognition will serve as a beacon to continue to attract talent to the lab, and that my team of talented and hard-working undergraduate and graduate students, post docs, staff, and collaborators both within and outside U of T today, sees this as a wonderful vindication of many late nights.”

With files from Jim Oldfield, Faculty of Medicine and Marit Mitchell, Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering