Gayah, Gomez, Gorski, O'Connor and Papakonstantinou receive prestigious NSF CAREER award

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State College of Engineering faculty Vikash Gayah, assistant professor of civil engineering; Esther Gomez, assistant professor of chemical engineering and biomedical engineering; Christopher Gorski, assistant professor of environmental engineering; Jacqueline O’Connor, assistant professor of mechanical engineering; and Kostas Papakonstantinou, assistant professor of civil engineering, received the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) esteemed Early Career (CAREER) award.

Gayah will research urban traffic network dynamics from a network-wide perspective. His project, titled “Multi-Scale Models of Urban Congestion Dynamics to Support Advanced Congestion Management Strategies,” aims to reduce urban traffic congestion and improve overall transportation system efficiency and reliability. Most traffic models focus on congestion on a local level, either on individual links or intersections. Gayah’s work attempts to study how congestion behaves on a regional scale. Once completed, he plans to use the knowledge gleaned to develop methods that will more efficiently manage traffic.

Gomez will research how cell differentiation is affected by tissue stiffness. “Through this research, we are hoping to gain a better understanding of how the stiffness and chemical properties of the environment of a cell impacts characteristics of the cell, including its ability to migrate and its ability to exert forces,” she said. “The new knowledge gained will provide the foundation for development of a model system that will facilitate studies aimed at advancing epithelial tissue engineering and identification of therapeutic approaches targeting cancer.”

Gorski will develop devices that use electricity to desalinate water and can also generate their own electricity. Gorski’s project, titled “Battery-inspired electrodes for efficiently desalinating water or harvesting salinity gradient energy,” aims to provide the public with access to clean water and affordable electricity by developing electrochemical cells, similar to batteries, that use electricity to take the salt out of water. In addition, they will also be able to produce their own electricity when utilized where seawater and freshwater combine at the coast.

O’Connor will research combustion instability to make power generation cleaner and more efficient. Combustion instability is one of the most costly challenges in operating a power generation gas turbine, and also has the potential to appear in aircraft engines, rockets, and boilers. It can lead to increased emissions, reduced operability, and component failure. In the end, her work will not only result in new scientific understanding, but also insight for more robust design of ultra-low emissions gas turbine combustors.

Papakonstantinou will advance innovation in optimal engineering decision-making under uncertainty and risks, with a focus on life-cycle analysis and structural applications, in order to address ongoing and emerging scientific and societal challenges relevant to the aging infrastructure environment. An integrated structural life-cycle analysis, design, maintenance, retrofit, and recovery framework is thus suggested in this project with the aim to reduce infrastructure life-cycle costs, optimize societal investments to infrastructure, lead to safer structures, and assist in improving national security and economic competitiveness.

NSF CAREER awards aim to support early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. Activities pursued by early-career faculty should build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research.

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Megan Lakatos