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Monday, April 15, 2024 — Houston, TX

Two professors awarded Vannevar Bush Fellowships

By Keegan Leibrock     9/13/23 12:01am

Qimiao Si, a professor of physics and astronomy, and Jeffrey Tabor, a professor of bioengineering and biosciences, have been awarded Vannevar Bush Faculty Fellowships by the U.S. Department of Defense. The award comes with a five-year fellowship and $3 million in research funding to continue work in their respective fields.

Si studies theoretical condensed matter physics and has been a faculty member at Rice since 1995. His contributions to the field of condensed matter physics focus on strongly correlated electron systems and the theory of quantum criticality, which relates to the transition of matter from one quantum state to another.

Si said his research intends to explore the responsiveness of electrons to stimuli. With the grant money, he said he will pursue research dealing with the control of topological states of matter.

“We want to establish a theoretical framework for realizing materials that have unusual properties — in this case, being extremely responsive,” Si said. “We want to start from intuition and build up the equations to be able to make a statement about realizing new states of matter … It’s not the approach that one takes on a daily basis and it’s also highly risky. It may not work.”

Tabor’s research focuses on bioengineering and biosciences. Since joining Rice in 2010, Tabor’s lab has programmed living cells to sense and respond to environmental stimuli along with developing potential methods to sense and treat intestinal disease.

Tabor said that he hopes this new research will streamline the DNA synthesis processes to open new research opportunities.

“Unfortunately, the technology that’s used to make synthetic DNA is based on chemistry and has not been changed in 40 years. It’s very expensive, it produces toxic chemical waste and it severely limits research,” Tabor said. “[Because of this], we aren’t able to do all the research that we want … our goal is to harness the power of enzymes that come from living things to naturally make DNA in an approach that is astronomically cheaper.”

Tabor said that this new process of DNA synthesis would have substantial benefits for those seeking medical treatment for cancer through cancer immunotherapy.

“While there [have] been early breakthroughs [in natural DNA synthesis], there’s also still a lot of challenges,” Tabor said. “If we were to make that process much cheaper, we could try many new designs, learn much more about how this system works and then make a new generation of these cancer immunotherapies that targeted more cancers, had less side effects and helped more people.”

Si said that obstacles to success, both in seeking this grant and in his research, have driven his excitement.

“Over the course of my career, I’ve made many predictions, and more often than not, they turn out not to be true,” Si said. “To me, that’s where the excitement lies, in this inevitability of unpredictability … the opportunities are enormous [and] the challenges are enormous.” 

Si said that the grant funding will open new opportunities in quantum physics that would have otherwise not been possible.

“The [$3 million grant] allows us to do two things,” Si said. “One is that it allows us to have a large group of postdocs and graduate students who can come together to brainstorm and formulate equations … [the grant] also allows us to facilitate experimental capacity.”

Si said that he would advise aspiring researchers to recognize a specific area of interest and work hard within that area.

“Follow your trajectory, and you’ll get something great — I think that’s quite true,” Si said.

Tabor expressed a similar sentiment, advising young researchers to be ambitious in their goals.

“Don’t be afraid to think big and pursue something that you’re really excited about,” Tabor said. “Even if it seems too far away, or too risky, or too challenging, if you are excited about it, [then] that excitement will come through in your daily life, and you’ll be doing your best work … that’s a good recipe for success.”

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