Three Young Scientists at Yale Honored with Sloan Foundation Fellowships

The Sloan Foundation announced that three exceptional young scientists at Yale University will be honored as two-year Research Fellows, beginning September 1, 2007.

The Sloan Research Fellowships were established in 1955 to provide support and recognition to early-career scientists and scholars with outstanding promise of making fundamental contributions to new knowledge. Each fellow receives a $45,000 award for the two-year period and is free to pursue whatever line of inquiry is of the most compelling interest to him or her.

Those named at Yale are Assistant Professor Jack Harris (Physics and Applied Physics), Associate Professor Brian Scassellati (Computer Science), Assistant Professor Susumu Tomita (Cellular & Molecular Physiology, and the Interdepartmental Neurosciences Program).

Jack Harris is a physicist who studies the relationship between light and matter.  “The idea that light can propel matter is quite old, and has been in the news recently as solar sail technology is being tested for spaceship propulsion,” he said. “The basic laws underlying this effect have been understood for more than a century: when light reflects off a surface, it exerts a gentle but measurable force.”

In recent years physicists have been trying to understand this effect at the opposite end of the size scale — how would this force effect a mirror that was so small and floppy that the recoil of individual photons would shake it measurably? According to Harris. “The answer has been debated since the first days of quantum mechanics, and will provide new insight into an astonishingly broad range of issues ranging from new types of unbreakable cryptography to experiments which could test the relationship between quantum mechanics and gravity. Our lab is constructing experiments to address these issues.”

Brian Scassellati is a computer scientist who uses models of human development to build humanoid robots that can interact socially with untrained users. As complex robotic technology becomes increasingly integrated into daily life, there is a critical need for these machines to operate comfortably and naturally. “Consciously and unconsciously, parents tailor their actions and the environment to their child. They draw attention to important aspects of a task and generally adapt the task to the child’s capabilities,” said Scassellati. “By building our machines to elicit this same type of behavior from humans, we hope to exploit the natural structure of social interactions to make robots more flexible, robust and intuitive to use.”

Scassellati will address both the technical challenges involved in the construction of the robotic systems and scientific challenges in using these robots as tools to study human social development. Beyond the engineering goal of allowing simple, natural human-robot interactions, this research has also found application in the diagnosis and quantification of disorders of social development, such as autism. “We are currently evaluating systems for speech rhythm recognition, gaze identification in unstructured settings and position tracking and motion estimation as quantitative measurements for diagnosis,” he said.  “All of these techniques address understanding social cues.”

Susumu Tomita is a neurobiologist who studies how neuronal circuits store information in the brain. Billions of neurons in the brain communicate with each other at synapses using molecular signals called neurotransmitters. “The major neurotransmitter that excites cells in the brain is glutamate, and specific receptors control the synapse strength, which is modified by neuronal activity,” said Tomita. “However, this mechanism remains unclear. The broad goal of our research is to understand how neuronal activity regulates activity of glutamate receptors at synapses.”

Tomita’s laboratory is using several techniques including biochemistry, molecular biology, immunocytochemistry, electrophysiology and gene-targeted animals to address this question. These studies can provide fundamental insights into the mechanisms that regulate synaptic strength at excitatory synapses. This, in turn, will deepen understanding of the neurobiology underlying learning and memory.

Sloan Research Fellows are selected from the top young investigators who do research in the disciplines of physics, chemistry, mathematics, neuroscience, economics, computer science, and computational and evolutionary molecular biology, and often are in their first appointments to university faculties. Thirty-two Sloan Fellows have won Nobel Prizes later in their careers, and hundreds have received other major honors.

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