Six Junior Faculty Receive Career Development Awards

Written by: Amy Laskowski | Source: Bostonia

Jerry Chen received quite a present just three months after arriving at BU. Chen, a College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of biology, is the winner of this year’s Stuart and Elizabeth Pratt Career Development Professorship, which highlights excellence within CAS. A neuroscientist who uses the sensory input from the whiskers of mice to study the relationship between local circuits and long-range networks in the brain’s neocortex, Chen says he hopes his research will help him better understand the central nervous system in mammals.

“I was a bit surprised and honored to find out I received this development award,” says Chen, who earned a bachelor’s in molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and a PhD in biology from MIT. He says his professorship will help him develop a novel microscope system and allow him to hire students and postdoctoral researchers to help with his work. “I consider it to be very generous and a nice welcome gift.”

Chen is one of a select group receiving this year’s annual Career Development Professorships, which recognizes junior faculty who have been at BU less than two years and have been identified as emerging future leaders in their respective fields. Made possible by the support of donors, alumni, and BU’s Technology Development office, these professorships emphasize the caliber and potential of the University’s faculty. Awards, nominating procedures, and selection vary based on the professorship and the unit administering the honor. All awards are for three years, and go towards the recipients’ salaries and research and scholarly work.

Bostonia’s recent story about several new Career Development Professorships established this year and their winners can be found here.

The annual University-wide Peter Paul Career Development Professorships have been awarded to Charles Chang, a CAS assistant professor of linguistics; Daniel Cifuentes, a School of Medicine assistant professor of biochemistry; and Arturo Vegas, a CAS assistant professor of chemistry.

Chang’s research explores the dynamics of language acquisition and development, focusing on the ways individuals’ native languages influence, and are influenced by, the phonological systems of heritage or later learned languages. Chang does this by using behavioral experiments, acoustic analysis, and statistical modeling. He is working on several projects in his lab; one examines variations “to which native language pronunciation changes during immersion in a foreign language environment,” he says, while another, done in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Maryland, addresses the hypothesis of a “critical period” for native language loss, and investigates how speech perception in native language declines among immigrants who came to America at different ages. Chang is a graduate of Harvard University and earned a master’s and a doctorate in linguistics from the University of California, Berkeley.

The Peter Paul Professorships have been awarded to Charles Chang (from left), a CAS assistant professor of linguistics, Daniel Cifuentes, a MED assistant professor of biochemistry, and Arturo Vegas, a CAS assistant professor of chemistry. Photos by Cydney Scott

As a biochemist and developmental biologist, Cifuentes examines the early stages of embryo formation and the role RNA plays during this period, with a “long-term goal of understanding how we develop from a single egg into a whole new organism,” he says. He uses small, four-centimeter zebrafish to study these basic mechanics of development, because the fish are “very easy to maintain in the lab and highly prolific,” he says. “The embryos are transparent and together with their fast development—we can already observe the heart beating, the blood flowing, and the muscles twitching the day after the eggs are fertilized—it is a great experimental system.” Cifuentes graduated from the University of Barcelona, where he earned a doctorate in biochemistry. He completed postdoctoral training at Yale.

Vegas uses his research in synthetic biology to develop novel chemical tools, materials, and approaches for targeting therapeutics to diseased tissues, with a focus on cancer and diabetes. Specifically, he says, his lab works to develop chemical technologies “that can serve as a guidance system for a therapeutic payload, delivering drugs to the cells in the body that have disease, while avoiding normal cells entirely.” He hasn’t yet decided how he’ll use the funding from his Peter Paul Professorship, but says the award “could go far in helping us cover the costs of some expensive experiments we’ve been thinking about.” Vegas holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from Cornell and a doctorate in chemistry from Harvard.

h_bostonia_ngo-campell_professorshipsThe Reidy Family Career Development Professorship, which recognizes College of Engineering and Questrom School of Business faculty, goes his year to John Ngo, an ENG assistant professor of biomedical engineering. The Ralph Edwards Career Development Professorship, given to MED junior faculty, has been awarded to Joshua Campbell (MED’12), a MED assistant professor of computational biomedicine.

John Ngo (left), an ENG assistant professor of biology, has earned the Reidy Family Career Development Professorship and Joshua Campbell, a MED assistant professor of computational biomedicine, the Ralph Edwards Career Development Professorship. Photo of John Ngo by Jackie Ricciardi. Photo of Joseph Campbell by Cydney Scott

Ngo’s research applies principles of evolution, chemistry, and engineering to develop new tools for visualizing, measuring, and controlling biomolecules in cells and organisms. Currently, his lab studies how proteases—proteins that “chop up” other proteins—are used by cells to regulate gene expression in response to different biological signals.

He says his Career Development Professorship came as a complete surprise, and that upon learning that he had been selected, he immediately wrote to thank his former mentors. “As somebody who is just starting an independent career, I know that much of my success is owed to the scientists who coached me along the way,” says Ngo, whose undergraduate degree is from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and PhD in biochemistry and molecular biophysics from the California Institute of Technology. “To me, this award is a big reminder of how lucky I am to have been trained by such great teachers. So, in honor of my mentors, I’m going to pay it forward and use this award to enhance the training environment of my lab for my own students.”

Using bioinformatics, Campbell’s research in DNA and RNA sequencing works to help detect and treat lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) at an earlier stage by identifying unique genomic mutations and then targeting them with novel therapies. Working at the BU-BMC Cancer Center, he says, he has an ambitious plan in place to apply single cell genomics to a variety of tumor types.

Campbell earned a doctorate in bioinformatics and completed postdoctoral training at BU. He has been on the MED faculty just this year, and he says that receiving a Career Development Professorship instantly validated his decision to teach and do research at BU. “The assistance I have had in my first several months has been very encouraging and shows the level of support BU gives to early investigators,” he says.

“The junior faculty members we recognize this year with Peter Paul, Stuart and Elizabeth Pratt, Reidy Family, and Ralph Edwards Career Development Professorships are all engaged in exciting research, scholarship, and creative endeavors,” says Jean Morrison, University provost and chief academic officer. “Their efforts range from enhancing our understanding of the way we learn new languages to using leading-edge technologies to detect and fight disease and yield vital insights into the human body and its development. By crossing disciplines, making critical discoveries, and helping forge entirely new fields of study, they exemplify the breadth and caliber of rising talent across our campuses. We believe strongly in their potential and are delighted to support their scholarly success here at BU.”

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