These other interests might even include work with another CAREER award recipient such as Doug Smith, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, who two years ago received close to $300,000 to develop new approaches to the modeling and design of manufactured products, particularly the vast array of products fashioned from polymer composites.
Engineering students might also pursue a project with Smith's colleague Vijay Sekhar Chellaboina, an assistant professor who recently left MU to accept a faculty position at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. Chellaboina received $225,000 to continue his work modeling and controlling so-called dynamical systems -- systems which are characterized by discrete events that occur independently from, but not outside of, a continuous sequence in time. In part because of the complexity of the systems he hopes to describe, and in part because his research doesn't involve laboratory investigations, Chellaboina had to sell NSF reviewers on the idea that the educational component in his CAREER project would involve a reconsideration of student education in general.
"I told them I would use control system theory to come up with some strategies for better training of students -- not necessarily in teaching, but in group learning." He explains that these strategies, developed in part by borrowing from models of disease transmission, will center on charting how ideas are received and disseminated among students.
MU plant scientist Shuqun Zhang, who received his CAREER grant in March 2002, remembers not just the pressure, but also the possibility, suggested by the grant's education component.
Zhang's award will provide some $500,000 toward funding his effort to uncover the genetic basis for "disease resistance signaling" in plants, an area of research that works to identify proteins involved in "plant resistance responses" -- a first step in showing how plants attempt to protect themselves from pathogens. Developing disease resistant food crop varieties is the ultimate goal, one intensely pursued by life scientists around the world. Zhang cautions that it's not a short-term proposition, hence the need for even young researchers to be conscious of training the next generation of researchers.
"It's a very important grant because it covers five years," Zhang says, "not like the typical three-year grant that requires you to rush to get a result. This will allow me and my students more time to establish long-term objectives and to look toward more complicated biological questions."
Zhang says he employs one postdoctoral fellow and two undergraduate students on the CAREER award funded project. All three, including the undergrads, are important parts of his team, he says. "Through the years I have had five or six undergraduates in my lab. ... I'm really pleased with both the amount and the quality of their data."
He is also pleased with the level of enthusiasm and scientific sophistication his undergraduate students exhibit. Those who are successful in his lab, Zhang says, will likely go to graduate school and pursue other investigations. Ultimately, he hopes, they will make their own important contributions. His role in those outcomes? "The key," Zhang says, "is to teach them to do one small thing at a time."
It's a sentiment that echoes NSF's own agenda for its CAREER awards -- the idea that each small instance of ingenuity and inventiveness from NSF-supported investigators can improve both America's science and our nation's science education.
"We've specified the broad outlines of what we hope will result from CAREER proposals with a great deal of flexibility. We're really leaving it up to the creativity and innovation of the investigator, along with their institutions, to put together a package that will lead them to become the premier researcher-educators in their fields," says the NSF's Courtney.
"The best of our CAREER awardees are doing things that would never have happened otherwise. And that's exactly what we wanted."