Four scholars named National Science Foundation Fellows

Four students from the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) at the University of Chicago have received National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowships. The NSF fellowship program, established in 1952, is widely considered to be one of the most prestigious awards in scientific research. The program recruits high-potential, early-career scientists and engineers, and supports their graduate research training in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

PME recipients of a 2019 NSF fellowship include:

Aron Coraor, in the biomaterials field, runs computer simulations of DNA and proteins to help understand how they pack into cells. By calculating the motion of individual atoms and molecules, he is helping to build what he calls “a bottom-up picture of genetics.” Coraor is a member of Juan de Pablo’s lab. “This award gives me the freedom to pursue potentially riskier research projects, which aren't guaranteed to work out but that may give us more novel insights into the molecular mechanisms of genetics,” said Coraor.

Jonathan Karsch, who studies solid state physics with the David Awschalom Group, examines how the information in qubits—the basic unit in quantum computing, analogous to the bit in classical computing—can be shared regardless of how close one qubit is from another. He plans to use the grant to research how magnetic wires carry information, specifically how information gets from a qubit to the wire and what makes information transmit well, ultimately to help build better quantum computing systems.

Kirill Shmilovich studies models and computational methods used in chemical theory in Andrew Ferguson’s lab. He is using computer simulations and machine learning to discover how different molecular building blocks form nanoscale structures, research with a potential broad impact in science and engineering. “The ability to precisely engineer bio-compatible electronics at the molecular level can lead to the development of new cellular-level medical therapies and clean energy technologies,” says Shmilovich. 

Christina Wicker’s research in quantum networks analyzes how single photons or units of light can create unconditionally secure connections between distant atoms, a feat not possible in classical (non-quantum) systems. Wicker is exploring how devices can trap and store light for a period of time to carry basic communications over long distances through existing fiber optic cables without being absorbed or lose their quantum nature. Wicker says that being part of the Tian Zhong lab offers a rich opportunity to study quantum systems and devices. 

Nanetta Pon, who studies with the Stuart Rowan Group as part of her PhD program in chemistry, also received a NSF Graduate Research Fellowship for her work in synthesizing, characterizing, and understanding new block copolymer-grafted nanorod composites, which could access nanoscale architectures for filtration and sensing applications.