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This year’s Wilmot Assistant Professors. At left, Thomas Howard. At right, Ellen Matson. In center: Kathryn Mariner (top) and Anna Rosensweig.

Award shines light on promising assistant professors

Thomas Howard, Kathryn Mariner, Ellen Matson, and Anna Rosensweig have quickly established themselves as outstanding researchers, teachers, and mentors at the University of Rochester.

They epitomize “promising young men and women in the early stages of their academic careers.” Hence their selection as this year’s Wilmot Assistant Professors. The two-year appointments, one in each of the four divisions of Arts, Sciences and Engineering, include an annual research fund of $5,000.

‘Hitting it out of the park’

Howard, who joined the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in 2015, is “hitting it out of the park in all aspects of his job performance,” says Mark Bocko, chair of the department. “He has built a fantastic experimental robotics laboratory, he has been a generous and effective research mentor to many students, from undergraduates to PhD students, and he clearly is highly respected by the robotics academic community with papers regularly accepted at international conferences and journals.”

Howard’s research combines robot motion planning, perception, estimation, control, and human-robot communication in uncertain environments. Since arriving at Rochester, he and his students have authored or co-authored two journal articles, 19 refereed conference papers, and six refereed workshop papers and won two best paper awards at international robotics conferences.  Howard has also made an impact on the ECE curriculum.  He developed new advanced electives on robot control and autonomous mobile robots and teaches a core course on microprocessor and data conversion.  Howard is also active in outreach and science communication.  He teaches a module on robotics for the Upward Bound Math/Science program and regularly serves as a featured presenter at the Rochester Museum and Science Center.

‘High-profile scholar . . . essential mentor’

Mariner, who became a faculty member in the Department of Anthropology in 2016, “has quickly emerged as a star in the College—a high-profile scholar, a popular teacher, and an engaged colleague who takes part in all aspects of the life our department and the College,” says department chair Daniel Reichman. Mariner’s research focuses on the relationship between social inequality and intimacy in the United States. In Contingent Kinship: The Flows and Futures of Adoption in the United States, she analyzes how adoptive parents, who are mainly white, imagine and reproduce ideologies of race and class through the adoption process, particularly in situations where they are adopting African American children from the inner city. She is working on a new research project investigating the relationship between race, space, and social inequality in Rochester, specifically examining how individuals from marginalized groups build spaces of community within the context of hypersegregation.

Mariner has run a faculty writing group, organized a film series, presented her work locally and at a number of national conferences, participated in University governance, and basically been “a strong presence on campus,” Reichman says. “She has been especially committed to the support and mentorship of students of color on campus and has become an absolutely essential mentor to many students in her short time here.”

‘A rising star in inorganic chemistry’

Matson, who joined the Department of Chemistry in 2015, has carved out new research directions in inorganic chemistry, specifically cooperative reactivity between molecules that attach to metals, called ligands, and the metal atoms themselves in small molecular sized clusters. “The broader impact of her research is the development of sustainable catalysts for the conversion of inert gaseous substrates and contaminants into energy-rich fuels and commodity chemicals,” says department chair Todd Krauss. Her “truly creative approach to molecular based development,” he says, gives her a “unique opportunity to change the landscape of energy-related chemistry with her studies.”

One of the few tenure-track faculty members with a degree in education, she has developed two new undergraduate courses that incorporate innovative learning experiences. She is faculty advisor to both undergraduate and graduate student groups in the department, has executed a new graduate student orientation program, and organized visits to over 50 classrooms throughout the Rochester City School District, engaging more than 1,500 students in chemistry demonstrations. “Given her remarkable advances in research, teaching and service, it is clear that Dr. Matson is a rising star in inorganic and materials chemistry,” Krauss says.

‘Gifted teacher . . . active scholar’

Rosensweig, who joined the Department of Modern Languages and Cultures as an assistant professor of French in 2016, is a “gifted and dynamic teacher” with “a very active profile as a scholar,” says department chair John Givens. She has published four articles and two book chapters, one of which is forthcoming in the prestigious MLA Options for Teaching series, a rare honor for junior faculty. She is currently finishing a book, Subjects of Affection: Rights of Resistance on the Early Modern French Stage, in which she locates a new genealogy of rights in early modern tragedy.

Rosensweig receives high ratings from students in the seven different classes she has taught. In their testimonials, they praise her as a role model for women in the humanities and cite her “exciting and inclusive teaching” that allows them “to question preconceived notions” and become “more accepting of alternative viewpoints.” Rosensweig is also lauded for her strong commitment to mentoring both undergraduate and graduate students. “In sum, I cannot praise Anna highly enough,” Givens says. “She is an extremely promising young professional and future departmental leader.”

Mathematics: A hotbed of philosophical questions

Philosopher Zeynep Soysal believes in building bridges, both between fields of inquiry and between philosophy and the wider world.

“I think there are basic clarifications that philosophers make, and they can be helpful in solving problems. They can have a big effect on how people view thinking and rationality,” she says.

Soysal, who joined Rochester’s faculty this year as an assistant professor of philosophy, works at the place where mathematics and the philosophy of language converge: she investigates how meaning is constructed in mathematical language. A specialist in both the philosophy of mathematics and the philosophy of language, she uses tools from each to help illuminate questions in the other.

“Mathematics has always been a very important test case for philosophical views, right from the beginning of philosophy,” she says. Mathematical knowledge is distinctive and complex, and philosophers aren’t in agreement about how it functions. Empiricists—David Hume and John Locke are two of the most famous—hold that people derive knowledge from sense experience. But math is a problem for empiricists, because mathematical and logical truths aren’t the product of experience. By contrast, rationalist thinkers—such as René Descartes and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz—contend that sense experience isn’t at the root of all understanding, and that mathematics provides a model of thinking with which sensory experience must be reconciled.

Mathematics isn’t just about numbers, in other words. It’s a hotbed of philosophical questions.

After a double major in mathematics and philosophy at Cornell, Soysal went on to earn her PhD in philosophy at Harvard in 2017. She works in the tradition of the logical empiricists. Such thinkers argue that mathematical knowledge operates as linguistic knowledge does: the truth of mathematical statements is a result of the way mathematical terms are defined.

Read more here.

Assessing vascular health by imaging blood cells in the retina

Jesse B. Schallek, assistant professor in the Department of Ophthalmology, describes a new, noninvasive approach to assess vascular health in the journal eLife. Schallek’s lab, part of the Flaum Eye Institute, developed a method to visualize how single blood cells flow through vessels of the eye using adaptive optics imaging.

The transparency of the eye provides a natural window to the retina, an extension of the brain. Vascular physiology is best studied noninvasively inside the living body, but seeing the details of how microscopic blood cells interact within the vasculature has not been possible with current tools such as fMRI. Schallek’s team developed high-resolution adaptive optics combined with fast camera capture to visualize single-cell blood flow dynamics in the living mouse eye.

“We’re able to image single blood cells and measure their speed. Remarkably, this can be achieved in vessels of all sizes, from the smallest capillaries to the largest retinal vessels,” says Schallek. “This approach may eventually provide a view of patient vascular health without the need for blood draws or dyes.”

Krystel Huxlin, associate chair for research in the Department of Ophthalmology, adds, “This method has the potential to enable early diagnosis of cardiovascular disease and diabetic neuropathy, and will also be of interest to investigators studying blood flow in the context of stroke and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

The study was conducted in large part by Optics graduate students Aby Joseph and Andres Guevara-Torres. “My research interest involves using my physics/optics background to provide insights into biological questions,” said lead-author Joseph. “This paper, at the intersection of physical sciences and neuroscience, provides a novel and noninvasive imaging approach that may advance our understanding of blood flow dynamics in brain and retinal vessels smaller than the width of a human hair.”

Schallek’s team, part of the Advanced Retinal Imaging Alliance (ARIA), is now deploying the method in healthy human eyes to establish metrics that will enable researchers to better elucidate the events that initiate and propagate disease. A pre-clinical investigation, funded by the Dana Foundation, is beginning to use this powerful approach to compare what happens in normal and diabetic retinas of human subjects. Schallek holds secondary appointments in the Department of Neuroscience and the Center for Visual Science. The research was funded by the National Eye Institute at the National Institutes of Health and by a Career Development Award from Research to Prevent Blindness.

Congratulations to . . .

Five University of Rochester graduate students who have been offered National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships.

Tara Pena, a PhD candidate in electrical and computer engineering from Queens, New York, does research in professor Stephen Wu’s lab on the fabrication and characterization of strain-based quantum device structures with 2D van der Walls materials. She’ll also continue her outreach involvement through the Kearns Center, PASSAGE (Physics and Astronomical Sciences Student Association for Graduate Engagement) and GSOC (Graduate Students of Color) and eventually hopes to facilitate a research group that focuses on post-Moore’s Law nanoelectronics.

Trevor Tumiel, a PhD candidate in chemistry, will continue his work in the Krauss Group, led by principal investigator Todd Krauss. The Buffalo, New York, native will study the photophysics of carbon nanotubes. The group is interested in exploiting defects on the nanotube surface to populate longer-lived stats that will allow them to circumvent fundamental obstacles in developing efficient, nanotube-based photochemical processes. “It’s a unique approach that offers promise, helping to overcome various obstacles researchers face when developing affordable and accessible alternative energies,” Tumiel says.

David Vargas, a doctoral candidate in bioorganic chemistry, will use his fellowship to pursue new methods to conduct chemistry in a more environmentally friendly manner, using enyzmes. Vargas was born in Louisville, Colorado, grew up in Medellin, Colombia, and returned to the U.S. to attend college in Michigan. He hopes for an academic career where he can continue to develop sustainable chemistry while teaching and transmitting his knowledge to students, especially those with a minority or disadvantaged background.

Carla Watson, a doctoral candidate in condensed matter physics, plans to use piezoelectric-driven mechanical strain to control the topological properties of 2D transition metal ditellurides (TMDs). The San Diego native also plans to develop outreach initiatives to inspire and educate low-income and minority students in Rochester about this field. “The realization of my research may have world-changing effects, because electronic phase-changing devices may result in integrated circuits that are dynamically customizable to the nanometer scale and may lead to a truly lossless quantum computer,” Watson says.

Omid Saleh Ziabari, a doctoral candidate in biology, will continue to study the parallel evolution of wings in aphids to understand why some convergent traits evolve by similar or different genetic changes. “My research focuses on the evolution and genetic basis of polymorphisms, a system amenable to training and outreach,” says Ziabari, who was born in Paris but raised in Chicago. “The support of this fellowship will contribute to my training in these areas and reinforce my efforts to enhance training and teaching for students of all levels.”

Outstanding PhD dissertation awards announced by AS&E

Each year Arts, Sciences & Engineering announces Outstanding Dissertation Awards in each of it four divisions.

This year’s recipients are:

Courtney Ball of psychology for “Differential Associations among Affective and Cognitive Empathy and Moral Judgments across Middle Childhood” and Gleason Judd of political science for “Essays on Democratic Institutions,” co-winners in the Social Sciences.

Adam Stauffer of history for “‘Is there any such thing as a California literature?’ Literary Culture and Regional Identity in Nineteenth Century California,” winner in the Humanities.

Maureen Newman of biomedical engineering for “Bone-targeted Polymer Delivery of Osteoanabolics for Bone Regeneration,” winner in the Applied Sciences and Engineering.

Thomas Nevins of physics for “Fronts and Filaments: Methods for Tracking and Predicting the Dynamical Effects of Advection on Excitable Reactions” and Cara Brand of biology for “The Evolutionary Genetics of Recombination and Segregation in Drosophila,” co-winners in the Natural Sciences.

Commendations were awarded to:

Rui Luo of optics for “Nonlinear Nanophotonics in Lithium Niobate” and Nicholas Knopf of English for “Disability, Disease, and Dissent: Embodiment as Critique of British and American Empire from the Stamp Act Crisis to Manifest Destiny.”

Upcoming PhD dissertation defenses

Francis Mollica, brain and cognitive sciences, “The Human Learning Machine: Rational Constructivist Models of Conceptual Development.” 10 a.m. May 22, 2019. 269 Meliora Hall. Advisor: Steve Piantadosi.

Jiyu Wang, biochemistry, “Reading frame maintenance at translation stalls in yeast involves eukaryotic specific mechanisms.” 9:30 a.m. May 29, 2019.  Neuman Room 1-6823 (Medical Center). Advisor: Elizabeth Grayhack.

Robert Maynard, pathology, “Establishing the Functional Role of Cped1 in the Genetic Regulation of the Osteoblast.” 1 p.m. May 30, 2019. 1-7619 Lower Adolph (Medical Center). Advisor: Cheryl Ackert-Bicknell.

Marina Oktapodas, epidemiology, “The Role of Environmental Lead Exposure on Influenza and Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) Infection in Children Three Years Old and Younger.” 2 p.m. May 31, 2019. Helen Wood Hall | 1W 501. Advisor: Todd Jusko.

Lauren VanGelder, chemistry, “Polyoxovanadium-Alkoxide Clusters as Charge Carriers for Nonaqueous Redox Flow Batteries.” 11 a.m. May 31, 2019. 101 Goergen Hall. Advisor: Ellen Matson.

Mark your calendar

May 20: Music and the Brain Luncheon featuring a discussion on the neuroscience of music and music training with Matthew BaileyShea, associate professor of music theory; David Temperley, professor of music theory; Edmund Lalor, associate professor of biomedical engineering and neuroscience; and Ross Maddox, assistant professor of biomedical engineering and neuroscience. PONS (Pre-doctoral Organization of the Neurosciences) Luncheon Roundtable Series. Noon. Hawkins Conference Room 1-7438 (Medical Center). Refreshments provided. For more information on upcoming neuro-related events, go to

May 23: “Effective Science and Risk Communication for Environment and Health,” by David Butler ’78 (MS ’80), director, Office of Military and Veterans Health,  National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 1:30-2:30 p.m., 110 Goergen Hall. Co-sponsored by the Environmental Health Sciences Center and the University Cluster in Interdisciplinary Studies (Sustainability). RSVP to Karen Berger,

May 23: The Rochester Advanced Materials Science Program (RAMP) Symposium, on the topic of “Biologically Engineered Materials.” 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Goergen Hall Sloan Auditorium. Featuring five keynote speakers, a poster session, and lightning talks.  Register for a poster presentation and lightning talks by e-mailing Gina Eagan. Read more here.

May 23: Deadline to apply for funding from the Center for Emerging and Innovative Sciences (CEIS) to support projects with NY companies that promote technology transfer to those companies. All proposals must be submitted by email as attachments using the forms on the CEIS web site at Documentation of company commitment must accompany the proposal. Proposals must be received by Cathy Adams (, 585-275-3999). Questions may be addressed to her as well.

May 28: Forbes Visiting Scholar Lecture: “Genetic Diagnosis of Blood Diseases in the Fetus and Newborn.” Patrick Gallagher,  professor of pediatrics (neonatology), of genetics and of pathology at Yale Medicine and the director of the Yale Center for Blood Disorders, will be visiting as the next Gilbert B. Forbes Scholar. His lecture will be from noon to 1 p.m. in the Ryan Case Method Room (1-9576).

May 31: 5 p.m. deadline to submit applications, sponsored the Medical Center and Roswell Park for pilot funding for research relevant to the regulation of tobacco products. Read the full RFA. Contact Scott Steele or Deborah Ossip with questions.

June 1: Un-meeting to foster new collaborations and ideas and explore innovative approaches to the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning at all stages of the translational science spectrum. Hosted by the University’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute (UR CTSI). 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saunders Research Building. Register by Monday, May 13.

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Rochester Connections is a weekly e-newsletter all faculty, scientists, post docs and graduate students engaged in research at the University of Rochester. You are receiving this e-newsletter because you are a member of the Rochester community with an interest in research topics.