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Engineering professor receives NSF CAREER Award

Mar. 26, 2008, 2:33 PM

[Note: Click here for a high resolution photo of Prof. Weiss.]

Sharon M. Weiss, assistant professor of electrical engineering, has received a prestigious National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program Award.

She will receive $400,000 over five years to support her efforts to achieve faster and more accurate detection of biological and chemical materials by using portable porous silicon waveguides. Her work has impact in medical diagnostics, environmental monitoring and homeland security.

One of the CAREER Program’s objectives is to identify the next generation of leading researcher-educators. The NSF receives about 2,500 applications for the 400 CAREER grants it awards annually. During the past two years, seven Vanderbilt engineering professors have received CAREER Awards, putting the School of Engineering among the top recipients of these awards nationally.

Weiss is investigating methods to achieve more sensitive detection of biomolecules in less time by using a sensor made from porous silicon, a material with billions of tiny nanometer-sized holes (1000 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair).

“Accurate and reliable detection of biological and chemical materials is essential for improved medical diagnostics, environmental monitoring, and homeland security,” she says. “The extremely large surface area of porous silicon allows it to capture large numbers of biomolecules. By evaluating how light interacts with the silicon, we can detect the presence of trace amounts of biological material. Porous silicon sensors, made in our photonic crystals laboratory, have been used to identify specific DNA sequences and we will design them to detect various toxins and viruses in the near future.”

The NSF grant will also support Weiss’ outreach initiatives for K-12 students, including her active participation in Tennessee Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Research (TWISTER), which reaches out to high school girls by offering hands-on science sessions led by women in science and technology careers. Furthermore, the award will enable Weiss to offer additional research experiences for undergraduate students. She has already mentored numerous undergraduate researchers, including members of under-represented groups in science and engineering.

Weiss joined the Vanderbilt faculty in 2005. In addition to her primary appointment in the School of Engineering, she has a secondary appointment as assistant professor of physics in the College of Arts and Science. She received a Ph.D. in optics in 2005, an M.S. in 2001 and a B.S. in 1999, all from the Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester. Weiss holds one patent and has two more pending. Her research interests include photonics, biosensing, optical properties of materials, and optoelectronic devices.

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Joanne L. Beckham, (615) 415-8171