HOPKINS COPS TWO OF 30 PRESIDENTIAL FELLOWSHIPS 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 research. "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 positions. "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 intervention." 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 noted. "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 do." 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 systems."
Go to Gazette Homepage