Three University faculty members are recipients of the 2013 Sloan Research Fellowships, a $50,000 research grant presented to early-career researchers.

Assistant Biology Prof. Sara Aton, Assistant Ecology Prof. Gregory Dick and Assistant Chemistry Prof. Stephen Maldonado are three of 126 promising investigators to receive fellowships. In the last three years, six University researchers received SRFs, which is issued by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which gives grants to institutions focused on science, technology and economics.

Aton — who graduated from the University in 2001 with a Bachelor of Science degree and set up her lab in July 2012 — expressed her gratitude to be included with future Nobel laureates. She will use the fellowship to continue investigating what she called the “unsolved mystery of biology.”

Aton’s lab analyzes two aspects of memory and sleep: consolidation — where information is encoded into long-term memory storage — and how neurons in the visual cortex change after the organism has seen something new.

“When you’re asleep, you’re not looking for food, you’re not looking for mates and you’re not reproducing,” Aton said. “So, from an evolutionary standpoint, you would think it would not be selected again unless it was serving them a very, very important role that we don’t understand yet.

Most sleep studies involve sleep deprivation. Uniquely, Aton’s lab studies sleep by turning on and off certain neurons and analyzing how those tweaks affect consolidation.

For Dick, the grant will support ongoing research in deep-sea hydrothermal vents. He said some vents include plumes that spew iron into the ocean, an element that alters photosynthesis. The vents also host organisms that survive in biologically harsh environments.

“These are examples of life in extreme environments, so they help us to define the limits of life,” Dick said. “They’re supported primarily from chemical energy in these vents rather than energy from sunlight.”

Dick said the research is basic, but identifying the enzymes these unique organisms possess has the potential to significantly advance biomedicine.

The fellowship, Dick said, does not fund a specific project, but rather will fund the five-year-old lab at the University.

“They’re funding my lab to do innovative things,” Dick said. “What’s really valuable about that is that we can take some risks. We can go after high-risk, high-reward type research.”

This June, Dick’s research team will travel to the deepest known sea vent, located in the Caribbean. In previous research, the team collected samples from vents and examined them in the lab.

“So far, what we’ve done is cataloging what’s there, and that’s generated a lot of hypotheses,” Dick said. “Now, we’d like to test those hypotheses with real experiments on the seafloor.”

Maldonado’s electrochemistry projects seek to develop new processes for renewable energy technology. He predicts the majority of the funds will be devoted to researching an efficient way of producing crystalline, or pure silicon.

In order to produce silicon chips, which are used in technologies ranging from computers to solar cells, the silicon dioxide found in nature is heated up with charcoal to yield pure silicon. The energy-intensive process releases a large amount of carbon dioxide,which Maldonado hopes to change.

“We hope that this process will ultimately fill a niche,” Maldonado said. “It would allow the possibility of scaling stuff up without it having such a huge energy cost and environmental impact.”

They are investigating a technique involving liquid metals, which involves lower temperatures and thus less energy, to produce the crystalline silicon.

“We use a liquid metal to both reduce the oxidized silicon precursor and then we use that liquid metal as a solvent to grow crystals,” Maldonado said. “You have control over how the crystals come out, and that’s really important when you want to start thinking about making devices.”

By expediting this and other processes, Maldonado said solar energy might become cheaper and more accessible for consumers.

“If you can simplify the process, you can cut down on the steps,” Maldonado said. “If you can make it so you don’t have to go to ungodly temperatures then everything becomes more affordable, more scalable.”

Maldonado believes that the SRF is just as much of an accolade as motivation.

“I see it both as a nice honor for where we’re at but it’s also humbling because now I know where we need to get going or where our science needs to go.”

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