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Four CLAS professors earn NSF CAREER awards

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Assistant Professor of Psychological Sciences Marie Coppola’s work investigates the effects of early sign language learning on the ability of deaf and hearing children to understand math. (Christine Buckley/UConn Photo)

The National Science Foundation has awarded Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) awards to four UConn College of Liberal Arts and Sciences professors. The program awards grant funding to junior faculty for outstanding research and exemplary educational skill, with the goal of building a firm foundation for leadership in integrating education and research.

“These four faculty members are among the most distinguished early-career scientists not only at UConn, but in their fields of study and around the world,” says Jeremy Teitelbaum, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “We’re immensely proud to have them on our faculty.”

Assistant Professor of Psychological Sciences and Linguistics Marie Coppola was awarded $1,269,634 over five years for her project, “The impact of language experience on the development of number representations in deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing children.” The grant is among the largest CAREER awards in the program’s history.

Coppola will study the causal factors behind the fact that children who are deaf or hard of hearing typically lag behind their hearing classmates in mathematics achievement. Based on recent research suggesting that early language development affects young children’s cognitive representations of numbers, her work will investigate the likelihood that delay in childhood exposure to language, which occurs for more than 90 percent of children who are deaf or hard of hearing, may negatively impact their ability to understand numbers.

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Assistant Professor of Marine Sciences Julie Granger, based at the Avery Point Campus, will study ocean nitrogen cycles with her CAREER award. (Photo courtesy of Julie Granger)

In particular, Coppola will compare number learning trajectories of deaf and hard of hearing children who learn American Sign Language (ASL) from birth with the trajectories of those who are exposed to language later in life and their hearing peers. Results of this work are expected to provide information to parents, educators and researchers about how to help the more than 80,000 deaf or hard of hearing children in our nation’s schools learn numbers for mathematical development.

Assistant Professor of Marine Sciences Julie Granger has been awarded $791,496 over five years for her project, “The biological nitrogen isotope systematics of ammonium consumption and production.”

Granger’s work seeks to create a basis through which researchers can better understand the oceanic nitrogen cycle. Isotopic data can be useful to interpreting nitrogen cycle processes in the ocean that are difficult to measure directly. Granger’s research will investigate the processes behind isotope fractionation, or relative abundance, of ammonium during biological processes. It will investigate whether low concentrations of ammonium in the surface ocean affect isotope fractionation when the ammonium is recycled, and whether there is a trophic isotope effect associated with ammonium recycling by plankton.

The research will create a baseline from which researchers can interpret recycled nitrogen dynamics from ammonium isotope datasets, and will significantly enhance our ability to understand the ocean’s fundamental chemistry and its vulnerability to human impacts.

Granger also plans to integrate science with community-engaged learning by developing an undergraduate field and laboratory course requiring students to present their research to stakeholders in the community. A manual created for this course will be disseminated in open-access forums for teachers to develop similar courses.

Assistant Professor of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences Emily Myers has received $433,995 for her project, “Optimizing Non-Native Speech Sound Learning: Brain, Bed, Computer and Classroom.”

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Emily Myers, assistant professor of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences, will study the effect of sleep on adult second language learning. (Bri Diaz/UConn Photo)

Myers’ research is based on the premise that learning a second language during adulthood is notoriously difficult, in part because many adults have trouble learning to perceive subtle differences among unfamiliar sounds. Her approach in this study suggests that sleep may play a major role in solidifying learned spec patterns into memory.

Specifically, for a person learning a new language, exposure to their own language after the foreign-language training, but before sleep, can degrade what they retain from their lesson. The goal of the project is to test whether sleep serves to protect new learned language information from interference. The project will use laboratory sleep training and monitoring, data from the Rosetta Stone learning software company on a variety of languages (e.g. Japanese, Irish, and Arabic), and fMRI scanning to locate interference effects on language learning.

Results from the project will help to improve language learning education, and will suggest better strategies for classroom and online training. Myers will also bring her research to middle-school classrooms to teach students about how sleep affects how the brain works.

Assistant Professor of Chemistry Jing Zhao has been awarded $675,000 over five years for her project, “Synthetically controlled plasmon-multiexciton interaction in semiconductor-metal hybrid nanostructures.”

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Work by Assistant Professor of Chemistry Jing Zhao will study the creation of novel hybrid metal and semiconductor nanostructures. (Christine Buckley/UConn Photo)

Her research aims to develop a novel synthetic method to create a metal-semiconductor hybrid nanostructure, with unprecedented control over its geometric structure. The work will identify the properties of hybrid metal and semiconductor nanostructures, with the goal of improving the emitting and optical properties of these structures for applications in lasers and in quantum communication.

When excited by light, nanosized metal and semiconductor crystals exhibit unique, geometry dependent optical properties. By combining the two components in one structure and controlling their geometry, the interaction between them leads to increased optical capabilities. Notably, the work will reveal the relationship between the geometry of hybrid nanoparticles and their optical properties at a single particle level.

Zhao’s grant will also support the development of new courses for undergraduate and graduate students focusing on optical nanomaterials and their applications in many different technologies. The research is being integrated into outreach activities for high school students through the UConn Early College Experience program, using short courses and lab demos for high school teachers and students to promote their participation in STEM research.

By: Christine Buckley | Story courtesy of College of Liberal Arts and Sciences


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