National Science Foundation Director Rita Colwell calls the Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers "the `Golden Globe Awards' for the Albert Einsteins and Marie Curies of tomorrow."
Awarded to only 60 researchers nationwide annually, the $500,000, five-year grant is the nation's most prestigious award for young scientists and engineers.
So the University of Florida was justifiably proud when chemistry Professor Robert Kennedy, 36, was honored with one of the first PECASE grants in 1996. UF had reason to be even prouder when PECASE grants went to materials science and engineering Professor Elliot Douglas, 33, in 1997 and astronomy Professor Elizabeth Lada, 38, in 1998.
"The fact that a University of Florida researcher has received this prestigious award every year that it has been offered speaks volumes about the quality of our younger faculty members," says Winfred Phillips, UF's vice president for research. "That our faculty are earning this kind of recognition so early in their careers certainly bodes well for the future of UF research well into the next century."
Kennedy says the award has led to invitations to give talks and publish in journals. He also says it has helped him win other awards and grants.
"The whole thing that keeps your research going is to have the funding, and when people evaluate proposals they evaluate three things: 'Are the ideas well thought out?,' 'Is it an important problem?' and 'Can this person do it?'" he says. "When you have an award like that, I think if there's any doubt, people give you the benefit of the doubt."
Kennedy, Douglas and Lada have decades of productive research ahead of them, and if what they already have accomplished during their short careers is any indication, the PECASE grants are only the first of many prestigious awards coming their way.
When Elizabeth Lada began her doctoral work at the University of Texas at Austin in 1986, she was hoping to make just one more incremental advance in science's understanding of how stars and planets form. But when she trained newly invented dust-penetrating infrared array detectors on the constellation Orion, she saw something that challenged conventional wisdom.
"The accepted notion was that infant stars form on their own in space," Lada says. "Our observations showed infant stars grouped in clusters. You might only have a few pockets, but hundreds of stars were being formed in these little concentrations."
Lada's findings prompted astronomers to rethink fundamental questions about planetary formation. If stars form in clusters, astronomers asked, how does that change other accepted notions of the formation process? And what impact might the cluster observation have on evolving theories of how planets form?
"Her theories represent a paradigm shift in attitude about how stars form," says Stanley Dermott, professor and chair of UF's astronomy department, adding that numerous publications and at least five major meetings have probed these and other questions raised by Lada's discovery.
Lada made another discovery during her observing runs at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory near Tucson, Arizona: her husband, UF astronomy Professor Richard Elston.
Since optical astronomers prefer dark skies, infrared astronomers like Lada and Elston had plenty of opportunities to work near one another on moonlit nights.
After her cluster discovery, Lada continued to hone her initial observations and theories. Her work led to a position as an astrophysicist for the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and then to a job as a Hubble Fellow at the University of Maryland at College Park
Elston, a specialist in designing astronomical instruments, pursued his own work in Chile, among other places. The couple dated long distance for several years before marrying and coming to UF as a team in 1996.
At UF, Lada's career has remained on the fast track. For example, she led an international team that proposed that it may be hard for planets to form around stars born in rich clusters. "Since a significant fraction of all stars form in clusters," Dermott says, "this may have important consequences for understanding the frequency of planetary systems in the galaxy."
While Lada's cluster research was one of the main reasons she received the Presidential Award, it wasn't the only reason, say officials at the National Science Foundation who nominated her. Another factor was her efforts to interest young people, especially women and girls, in science, says James Wright, program director of NSF's division of astronomical sciences.
A small, framed poster memorializing astronomer Annie Jump Cannon hangs on the wall of Lada's office. Cannon, who lived from 1863 to 1941, perfected today's universal system of stellar classification, which is based on the temperature of stars. Lada cites Cannon's and other women astronomers' contributions as evidence of how science can benefit from diversity.
"I think both science and the gender suffer as a result of the relative scarcity of women who pursue scientific careers," she says. "To have science dominated by one group is not necessarily a good thing for science or society."
Lada practices what she preaches. At UF, her activities have included putting together last year's Women-In-Science lecture series and organizing, with Elston, a children's fun night of astronomy that featured interactive exhibits and a trip to UF's teaching telescope.
Her papers usually have titles like "Star Formation in the L1630 Molecular Cloud," but for the astronomy night Lada signed off on a slightly more accessible name: "The Really Huge, Giant, Humongous, Gargantuan Wow They're Big Planets Night."
Lada, who gave birth to her first child, a boy, in June, says it's important to nurture interest in science at all levels.
"It's a responsibility to communicate with the public and get it across to them, because the public supports us and they're important," she says. "If they're not interested, then what the heck am I doing here?"
Throughout high school in Jacksonville, Robert Kennedy aspired to be a veterinarian, and while that early career path may have been sidetracked, the chemistry professor's interest in biology is evident in almost everything he does.
Kennedy is a nationally recognized authority in bioanalytical chemistry, a hot research area centering around developing new ways to detect and measure tiny levels of biological chemicals. He is perhaps best known for pioneering a way to measure insulin secretion by individual cells, an achievement already helping medical researchers test new diabetes drugs and treatments. The research helped earn Kennedy a Presidential Award in 1996, the first year it was offered.
"Certainly I feel, and I think everyone else feels, that he's one of the top young analytical chemists in the U.S," says James Winefordner, a UF graduate research professor in analytical chemistry.
Kennedy says his research goal is to help medical researchers find new and better techniques.
"We try to find things that would be very valuable but that we haven't been able to measure before, or at least not very well," he says. "Then we try to develop the approach for doing that: building an instrument, developing new reagents, whatever it takes."
After graduating from UF in 1984, Kennedy earned a Ph.D. in 1988 from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As part of his post-doctoral research at UNC, he developed a method to measure adrenaline secretion by individual adrenal cells. The technique attracted widespread attention, mostly because it shed light on the fundamental science of how cells secrete hormones.
Hired as an assistant professor at UF in 1991, Kennedy decided to aim for something with more practical applications.
"When you're starting out a career, you know you have a few years to do something that people will pay attention to and say 'Yeah, that guy deserves to have a job for awhile,'" Kennedy says. "I thought measuring cellular insulin secretion would be something that would be very important and surprising, so that's what we decided to go for."
A big factor in diabetes is insufficient insulin secretion, which causes abnormally high glucose levels. Researchers probing why a diabetic's pancreas cells fail to produce normal amounts of insulin must first establish how much insulin they secrete, and at what rate, compared to the cells of a healthy person. Prior to Kennedy's work, researchers had to measure the insulin produced by thousands of cells at a time.
To achieve more exact measurements, Kennedy designed a minute carbon fiber and epoxy electrode fitted at the tip of a glass needle about one-fifth the diameter of a human hair. Using sensitive positioning instruments, researchers place the electrode against the wall of a cell viewed through a microscope. They then monitor how much insulin the cell secretes in response to different experimental drugs or other manipulations.
Several researchers have already used the technique, including Jonathan Lakey, an assistant professor of surgery at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. Lakey is looking into ways to cull pancreatic cells from a healthy person, store them and then use the cells to help treat a diabetic person. He used Kennedy's technique while examining whether freezing the cells, then thawing them out for use later, could impact their ability to produce insulin.
"By working with Bob Kennedy and his specific and very sensitive assay systems, we have a clearer understanding of insulin secretion in pancreatic (cells) that have been cryopreserved," Lakey says.
Tom Vickroy, a professor of physiological sciences at the UF College of Veterinary Medicine, is another researcher who relies on Kennedy's techniques. A specialist in the chemical basis for cellular communication in the central nervous system, he and Kennedy have worked together on several projects.
"He has a very keen interest in the biology and in the applications for what he develops to biological problems," Vickroy says.
Vickroy and Kennedy are currently working on a Department of Defense-funded project aimed at learning more about how to treat victims of chemical weapons attacks or other exposure to dangerous toxins. Many of the toxins in question cause seizures, and Vickroy and Kennedy are probing the chemical processes at the root of these seizures. Kennedy's techniques have allowed Vickroy and his colleagues to make many more measurements than previous studies, providing a much more accurate picture of the processes in question, Vickroy says.
"It really has allowed us to study the dynamics of brain chemistry in a way that was never possible before," Vickroy says. "The brain operates at such rapid speed, the speed of measurements is absolutely critical."
Kennedy keeps a busy, if not frantic, schedule, often coming into the office or lab on Sundays. But not all of his time is devoted to research. He is supervising 12 graduate students and is one of the chemistry department's most well-regarded teachers, winning a Teaching Improvement Program Award in 1995 and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences' Teacher of the Year Award in 1994-95.
Elliot Douglas' research may do for the next generation of military vehicles what graphite did for the tennis racket.
Douglas' efforts to marry the unique strengths of two classes of polymers could produce a super-light material of unprecedented strength. That could lead not only to tougher, lighter armor for tanks or armored personnel carriers, but also to better sports equipment and superior materials for airplanes, colleagues say.
Right now, Douglas is just trying to get the two materials to date, but if he can get them to the altar the practical applications may not be so far away. And it is the practical applications of his basic scientific research that have endeared Douglas to his colleagues.
"He's doing fundamental basic science, but it also is something with significant potential applications," says Doug Kiserow, director of polymer chemistry for the U.S. Army Research Office.
Douglas works with two types of materials: liquid crystalline polymers and epoxy thermosets. Liquid crystalline polymers are cousins to the liquid crystals used in watch displays and laptop computer screens. Epoxy thermosets are found in everything from boat hulls to tennis rackets.
Liquid crystalline polymer molecules have a unique property: they all line up in the same direction. Douglas' research focuses on altering the chemical structure of these molecules so they act like epoxy thermosets, which set in place to form a hard substance. The work could result in a superior material for several purposes, part of the reason the Army is so interested, says Kiserow, who nominated Douglas for the Presidential Award.
"These materials could have improved chemical resistance, resistance to environmental change, reduced weight with increased strength and enhanced mechanical properties that make them more damage tolerant," Kiserow says.
At the very least, Douglas' research will broaden the understanding of polymers and composites.
"What he is doing is going to help us understand how to process polymers differently and how to get better properties out of them, which may lead to new applications," says Reza Abbaschian, professor and chair of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.
Douglas says it's still too early to know what the advantages of these materials might be.
"Instead of a plain old epoxy that doesn't have molecules lined up, we've got an epoxy with the molecules lined up," he says. "The question is 'So?' That's what I'm trying to answer."
Douglas encourages a mix of fundamental and applied science in the lab. Several of his six graduate students focus on basic science, while others look into more practical elements of the research, such as measuring how much stress the liquid crystalline thermosets can withstand before breaking.
"I don't want to do work in the abstract on a subject that only a few people care about," he says. "I've tried to set the lab up so we do fundamental science, but at the same time we also have students testing the applications."
Assistant Professor, Department of Materials Science and Engineering
Professor, Department of Chemistry
Associate Professor, Department of Astronomy