Four faculty win early-career investigator awards

Awards recognize outstanding researchers with strong leadership potential. And, for the first time in College of Engineering history, all of the winners are women.

September 14, 2021

by Steve Frandzel and Steve Lundeberg

Four faculty in the Oregon State University College of Engineering have received prestigious early-career investigator awards from the National Science Foundation and the Office of Naval Research. Erica Fischer, Kelsey Stoerzinger, and Rebecca Hutchinson are recipients of the Faculty Early Career Development, or CAREER, award from the NSF. Meagan Wengrove is the recipient of a Young Investigator Program award from the ONR.

The awards cover a wide array of engineering projects: studying the use of mass timber for building construction; researching the safe production of hydrogen gas from seawater; improving the species distribution models used by ecologists and natural resource managers; and using fiber optic cables on the ocean floor as early warning systems for communities in harm’s way from earthquakes, tsunamis, and dangerous waves.

This is the first year in the college’s history that all of the NSF and ONR early-career investigator awards have gone to women. In the 30 years prior, only 10 of the 59 College of Engineering faculty who received early-career awards were women.

“I’m delighted by the early career success of these faculty, but not surprised,” said Scott Ashford, Kearney Dean of Engineering. “Several years ago, the College of Engineering began creating a more inclusive environment in support of women in engineering — taking a deep look at the root causes of longstanding barriers and implementing changes in faculty recruitment, promotion and tenure, and professional development. And now we’re seeing the fruits of these changes.”

According to the American Society for Engineering Education, Oregon State’s College of Engineering ranks second nationally among land-grant universities for percentage of tenured or tenure-track engineering faculty who are women and third among the nation’s 94 public R1 universities. These rankings played a role in ASEE’s selection of the College of Engineering as an “exemplar” recipient of a Bronze Award in the first year of the ASEE Diversity Recognition Program, the highest recognition offered in the program’s inaugural year.

Erica Fischer

Erica Fischer, an assistant professor of civil and construction engineering, was selected for her proposal to create new technologies for the mass timber modular construction of buildings. The building construction industry is primed for a major change to improve efficiency, she said, noting that construction has been done the same way for more than 100 years.

“Almost every major U.S. city is experiencing a housing crisis. Modular construction addresses these shortages while improving job site safety, increasing speed of construction, and lowering construction costs,” Fischer said. “Enabling mass timber to be used for modular building construction is also really beneficial to Oregon’s economy, which has made significant investments in mass timber production, manufacturing, and research.”

Fischer will use her $560,000 award to develop innovative technologies for changing how buildings are designed, manufactured, and assembled in regions with a high risk of earthquakes or strong winds — specifically, technologies that enable the construction of modular, mass timber buildings that incorporate a range of lateral force-resisting systems and can withstand the combined forces of gravity and lateral movement caused by seismic events and wind.

“We will study the connections of members within mass timber modular buildings and the relationship between the rigidity of these connections and overall structural behavior,” she said.

Kelsey Stoerzinger

Kelsey Stoerzinger, an assistant professor of chemical engineering, was chosen for her proposal to study how to split seawater into hydrogen and oxygen while avoiding undesirable chloride byproducts. Hydrogen has many scientific, industrial, and energy-related roles, such as in fuel cells for cars.

“Renewable electricity can drive chemical reactions, including the generation of hydrogen from water,” Stoerzinger said. “This stores electrical energy in a chemical fuel that can be transported and used on demand. Seawater is an abundant water resource, but electrochemical hydrogen generation can also generate harmful byproducts from seawater salts that pose environmental and safety concerns.”

Stoerzinger will use her $550,000 award to design and test materials and reaction conditions that split water without creating these byproducts.

“We’ll focus on designing materials called catalysts that selectively facilitate the generation of benign oxygen gas in systems containing chloride salts,” she said. “Our work will aid the development of improved energy storage and chemical manufacturing strategies that reduce our nation’s reliance on nonrenewable resources.”

Rebecca Hutchinson

Rebecca Hutchinson, an assistant professor with appointments in both engineering (computer science) and the College of Agricultural Sciences (fisheries, wildlife, conservation sciences), will use her $564,000 award to improve the machine learning methods used to develop species distribution models, or SDMs, that are built with data gathered through community science and used by ecologists and natural resource managers.

“You build an SDM by correlating observations of species — are they there or not? — with environmental features,” she said. “Then you can use the model to understand why species live where they do and how likely a species is to occur at a new site. But the spatial aspects of both species and environmental data can be problematic for the machine learning currently used in the models.”

To assess the model’s performance, some data are typically held out during model building. Then the model’s ability to predict the unseen data is used to measure its quality. With spatial data, however, randomly selecting data to hold out can lead to optimistic bias in quality estimates.

Hutchinson also intends to account for the inevitable underreporting of species during biodiversity surveys. Errors introduced by underreporting can be corrected by conducting multiple observations at the same site and estimating the probability of detecting the species, but community science programs usually aren’t set up that way, according to Hutchinson. “Our award will support research to create groups of multiple observations after the fact to better account for underreporting,” she said. “For science and management questions informed by SDMs, this will improve the ability to correct for observational errors and translate to better habitat models.”

In addition, Hutchinson aims to reduce errors that can creep into the quality of estimates generated by the models. For example, if temperature data is unavailable in mountainous regions, elevation may be used as a proxy for temperature when modeling the presence of bird species that are highly sensitive to cold or warmth. That substitution might work well in the Cascades but not along the coast or in the valley, leading to unexpectedly bad predictions in nonmountainous areas — the result of biased performance estimates. Her intent is to develop methods to estimate model performance that avoid this pitfall, giving scientists and managers a better idea of when to use their models with caution.

Hutchinson’s research could potentially enable scientists to build SDMs that more accurately provide climate model projections and obtain estimates of how species will fare under the influence of climate change.

Meagan Wengrove

With her $510,000 award, Meagan Wengrove, an assistant professor of civil engineering, will examine the possibility that a nascent technology called distributed acoustic sensing can serve as an early warning system for events such as tsunamis, sneaker waves, and internal waves — all potential threats to coastal communities and marine traffic.

To test the idea, she’ll send a sequence of short laser pulses, generated by a device called a laser interrogator, down one end of standard fiber optic cables that rest on the seabed and which stretch up to 20 kilometers from shore.

“Because the cables are made of glass, the light propagates quickly down each one,” Wengrove said. “Any disturbance — such as a wave or movement of the sea floor — that deforms the fibers, even just a tiny amount, will change the way the light signal returns to its origin. We can then detect precisely in time and space where that change occurred and how large it was.”

In theory, real-time alerts could be sent out automatically to warn communities or seagoing vessels about the potential hazard.

“The first thing I want to do is understand what we can reliably measure with this instrument in the ocean, and no one has done that before,” Wengrove said.

Testing will be conducted at two locations. One is the 20-kilometer Oregon State PacWave cable, used for wave energy research, which will be deployed off Newport. The second will be a shorter fiber installed at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Field Research Facility near Duck, North Carolina.

Distributed acoustic sensing can measure strain over distances up to 150 km with a spatial resolution as small as 1 meter and detect changes in fiber strain as small as 100 nanometers over 10 meters of the fiber. Each cable can provide thousands of measurements along its length, whereas current in-situ sensing techniques are limited to, at most, tens of sensors.

“There’s no other type of sensor out there that can sample as quickly and at so many locations simultaneously, and the technology is improving every day,” Wengrove said. “It’s conceivable that we could one day use fiber optic sensing with existing telecommunications cables that span entire oceans and monitor, in real time, events thousands of miles from shore.”

The NSF CAREER program supports 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, according to the NSF website.

According to the ONR website, the Young Investigator Program seeks to identify and support academic scientists and engineers who are in their first or second full-time tenure-track or equivalent position, who have received their doctorate or equivalent degree in the past seven years, and who show exceptional promise for doing creative research.

Photos by Jake Anderson, Johanna Carson, and Gale Sumida

CATEGORIES: homestories