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Obama awards professors for research efforts

By Tina Ou     1/27/11 6:00pm

In recognition of their research efforts, Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Farinaz Koushanfar and Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Physics and Astronomy Emilia Morosan were awarded the Early Presidential Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers.Eighty-five researchers nationwide were honored with the award, which is given to scientists and engineers who are in the early stages of their career, but have already conducted outstanding research.

Nominees are selected by 10 federal departments and agencies. Both Koushanfar and Morosan were nominated by the U.S. Department of Defense. The ceremony was held on Dec. 13 at the White House and was followed by a reception and meeting with President Barack Obama.

"I was impressed by the breadth of research that's being covered by all the awardees," Morosan said."I was humbled to be one of them."



Koushanfar received the award for her research in areas that concern national security, such as her work on integrated circuits. Her lab works on developing methods to make chips safe and secure.

Because chips are often designed in Western countries such as the United States and then manufactured in offshore countries, Koushanfar said that some issues that must be considered include counterfeits, theft of intellectual property, theft of integrated circuits and the integrity of the materials.

According to Koushanfar, counterfeits in the electronics market result in huge financial losses. She said there are estimates that 10 to 20 percent of electronics on the market are counterfeit.

Koushanfar said her research is important to governments, industries, and businesses not only because it provides protection against financial losses but also because chips are used in a variety of devices, including mobile phones, bank cards, access control devices, and in particular weapons. She said tampering with the technology used in weapons is considered a matter of national security.

To counter such problems, Koushanfar's lab is working on anti-counterfeiting technology, piracy prevention, hardware security and low-power designs for cell phones and radios.

Koushanfar said she received the award not only for her research but also for her contributions to education and leadership as founder and faculty advisor of EXCEL, a network of women in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department dedicated to providing mentoring, promoting career opportunities, cultivating women leadership and advocating diversity.

"One of the things I'm proud of is that we have been able to attract a lot of external fellowships," Koushanfar said. "Several of our women have been given national and international awards and scholarships."

Electrical and Computer Engineering Department Chair Behnaam Aazhang said the award is a recognition of Rice, and he said the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department is very honored that Koushanfar received the award.

"She is very accomplished, and she works in a very relevant and timely research area," Aazhang said. "In addition to the visibility and the recognition that she gained, she will also be carrying out a very important research project for the nation."

As for the impact of this award on her research, Koushanfar said she hopes to use the financial aid she received to advance security of embedded devices and low-power radios. She also hopes that Rice will implement a more effective system of rewarding students who show excellence and leadership in research.

"It's an honor to receive this award," Koushanfar said. "It's one of the key awards one could get. On the other hand, I wish that being recognized for our efforts could pave the way for Rice to become a high-impact research institution."

Koushanfar said because Rice does not have a similar reward system in place, it discourages students from pursuing excellence and recognition.

"I hope there is a way to encourage outstanding students like in other top research institutions so that we are not at a competitive disadvantage, and we can follow the provost's vision," Koushanfar said.

Morosan received the award for her research on novel superconducting materials. These materials have both superconductivity at high temperatures and magnetism, which is unusual in superconductors.

In addition, Morosan said it appeared the magnetism was necessary for the high superconducting temperature, and conventional superconductors had a relatively low critical temperature.

Morosan said there are two purposes to her research: to look for other superconducting materials that show those unusual properties and also to understand the connection between superconductivity and other properties such as crystal structure and magnetism.

Morosan said her lab is also working on designing and synthesizing what she calls an "optimum superconductor," a high-temperature superconductor with practical properties.

"Ultimately, we all want to make a room-temperature superconductor," Morosan said. "But that goal is not as close to being realized as we'd like."

According to Morosan, materials research in the United States has lost ground to Asia and Europe.

She said recently that there have been efforts to boost the materials science field in an attempt to return the United States to the status of world leader in such research.

With regard to the effects of receiving the award, Morosan said it has brought funding to her lab and validated the importance of the lab group's research.

Morosan said that with awards come funding, which young researchers may have difficulty getting.

She said early career awards in recognition of high quality work and the ability to produce results are more likely to bring the awardee research funds, which is crucial because having research funds is necessary for a researcher to continue to develop his project.

Morosan said she hopes the award will attract valuable people to her group. She said she considers hiring more people one of the most important aspects of winning the award.

"I am hoping graduates and undergraduates will come tearing down my door because I'd like to have them join our group and research," Morosan said.

She said that a shortage of ideas was not an issue.

"We just don't have enough hands or time to explore everything I want to work on," Morosan said. "So hiring more graduates, undergraduate students and post-docs is one of the biggest benefits that I see from receiving this award."

Physics and astronomy fourth-year graduate student Liang Zhao, who has worked in Morosan's lab group since she came to Rice in 2007, said Morosan contributes to the good relationship between the lab members.

"She always inspires us to learn new things, not just in our research but also to broaden our knowledge of other fields," Zhao said, "She always reminds us that there is a lot else going on, and we have to keep open minds.



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