Johns Hopkins Gazette: September 6, 1994


         Scientists earn prestigious NSF
         awards for young faculty

By Ken Keatley and Emil Venere

Each year, the National Science Foundation grants just 30
Presidential Faculty Fellows awards. This year, Hopkins is
home to two of them.
    Gregory S. Chirikjian, an assistant professor of
mechanical engineering, and Collin Broholm, an associate
professor of physics, were selected for the awards last
month. As Presidential Faculty Fellows, each will receive an
annual $100,000 grant for five years to support their
research and academic work.
    Winners are chosen based on their competence and
leadership as educators and researchers in science or
engineering, and their impact on their institution. The
awards are aimed at young faculty members; nominees must be
within eight years of receiving their doctorate and four
years of commencing their first tenure track position.
    Universities may nominate just two candidates, one each
from science and engineering. The National Science Foundation
received about 300 nominations from institutions around the
nation; only 10 percent of the researchers were selected.
    That makes the selection of both Hopkins nominees
especially significant, said Ted Poehler, vice provost for
    "We've been winning at least one every year," Dr.
Poehler said. "This is a measure of the kind of young faculty
being attracted here."
    Dr. Chirikjian, 28, is the third Hopkins engineering
faculty member to win the award in as many years. Associate
Professor David T. Yue of Biomedical Engineering was honored
in 1992, and Associate Professor Jerry L. Prince of
Electrical and Computer Engineering was honored in 1993.
    Dr. Chirikjian's field of expertise is robotics. He and
his research team are working on a number of projects
involving hyper-redundant manipulators, a type of robot that
has the ability and versatility to configure into millions of
    "Robots should not be looked at as things that would
replace humans, but as tools that facilitate the work they
do," Dr. Chirikjian said. "They can also be useful in an
environment that you would not want humans to enter. So, it's
important to use simple principles of mechanics in the design
of robots so that they work reliably without human
    Dr. Broholm, 32, specializes in experimental condensed
matter physics and is working on research involving
superconductivity. He is an expert in the area of neutron
scattering and leads a team of three Hopkins graduate
students conducting experiments at the National Institute of
Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md.
    Scientists use beams of neutrons to analyze electronic
properties at the atomic level and study the atomic "spins"
that determine the magnetic characteristics of materials. The
technique allows them to analyze the workings of
superconductivity, a condition in which electrons are
conducted with no resistance.
    The United States has few young scientists who are
experts in neutron scattering, while European institutions
are training more researchers in the field, Dr. Broholm
    "I think there are too few in the States," he said.
    Dr. Chirikjian's work deals more with applied science
but suffers no lack of creativity. One of his robot designs
is an 8-foot, snakelike binary robotic arm. Powered by
compressed air and controlled by a computer, the three
pneumatic pistons driving the arm can manipulate it into
33,000 positions. Most conventional robotic manipulators have
a continuous range-of-motion and are driven by sophisticated
motors and computers that are quite costly. Binary
manipulators have the potential to be very inexpensive.
    "Many robots in the early 1980s were disappointing," he
said. "They were expensive and limited in what they could
    He foresees versions of the arm being used to slither
through a nuclear reactor to detect leaks, pluck a wayward
satellite from space or inch through arteries during surgery.
    "I love working out the fundamental mathematical and
engineering issues, then building small prototypes," Dr.
Chirikjian said. "Let someone else build big complicated

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