Institute Research Award Winners Named for 2020

Every year, all of Georgia Tech’s outstanding faculty and staff are recognized at the Faculty and Staff Honors Luncheon. As a result of modified campus operations during the COVID-19 pandemic, the luncheon this spring has been canceled, but the work of the 2020 honorees continues, and the Office of the Executive Vice President for Research (EVPR) has proudly named the winners of six research awards.

“I always look forward to the honors luncheon because it reminds us that Georgia Tech’s people are at the heart of our success,” said Chaouki Abdallah, Georgia Tech’s EVPR. “Although this year’s circumstances prevent us from gathering in person, I am pleased to be able to recognize these individuals’ accomplishments virtually. Their collective talent, energy, and enthusiasm continue to make Georgia Tech an outstanding institution.”

Georgia Tech’s 2020 Institute Research Award winners include:

Outstanding Achievement in Research Enterprise Enhancement Award

This year’s award for Outstanding Achievement in Research Enterprise Enhancement goes to Christine Conwell, a senior research scientist and managing director of the Center for Chemical Evolution in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry. This award is given to a Georgia Tech staff member who consistently betters Georgia Tech’s research program but is not a traditional researcher.

Conwell has led the daily operations of the Center for Chemical Evolution (CCE), a large-scale research center funded by the National Science Foundation and NASA, for more than nine years. As part of the CCE leadership team, she focuses on the Center’s mission of pursuing impactful and innovative science within the interdisciplinary research structure. Conwell also acts as the liaison between the CCE and both the NSF and NASA program officers. Her leadership and accomplishments have been recognized by the NSF and by NASA in several site visit reports.

Conwell was nominated by M.G. Finn, James A. Carlos Family Chair for Pediatric Technology and professor and chair in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

“Christine models the best and most effective aspects of our community culture,” Finn writes. “She excels at nurturing innovation through collaborative and interdisciplinary pursuits, is committed to excellence, and embraces the opportunity to challenge and enrich the next generation entering the STEM workforce.”

Outstanding Achievement in Research Innovation Award

The award for Outstanding Achievement in Research Innovation goes to Ayanna Howard, chair of the School of Interactive Computing, Linda J. and Mark C. Smith Professor and director of the Human-Automation Systems Lab in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. The award honors faculty whose research results have had a demonstrable and sustained societal impact.

Howard researches and designs robotics and interaction technologies. Working closely with clinicians, therapists, and special education teachers, she has created mobile technology and robotics that can be used in a clinical setting or at a child’s home or school to support rehabilitation, learning, and development of autonomy. Her most recent work is on an NSF-funded initiative to research and design a new robot programming platform to engage deaf and hard-of-hearing children in computing.

Howard was nominated by Magnus Egerstedt, Steve W. Chaddick School Chair and professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

“Dr. Howard is at the top of her discipline and is considered a research leader,” Egerstedt says. “This is evident from the impact and quality of her work, backed by her quantity of peer-reviewed publications, and her technology transfer efforts and its corresponding impact on children with diverse learning needs.”

Outstanding Doctoral Thesis Advisor Award

Muhannad Bakir, the Daniel Curtis Fielder Professor of Discrete Aspects in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is this year’s recipient of the Outstanding Doctoral Thesis Advisor award. This award recognizes the achievements of a faculty member's doctoral students who completed all degree requirements.

In the past five years, Bakir has graduated 14 Ph.D. students. He and his students have won 32 awards for their research, including multiple best paper awards from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Many of Bakir’s students have received prestigious fellowships from Intel, IBM, Semiconductor Research Corporation, and federal agencies.

“Graduate school is not just about doing great research and publishing papers,” Bakir writes of his teaching philosophy. “We help students discover their technical passions and career paths that leverage [those] passions, so they remain happy pursuing what they love post-graduation.”

Bakir was nominated by Magnus Egerstedt, Steve W. Chaddick School Chair and professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Egerstedt says that Bakir “strives to build a group culture that is collaborative, focused, transparent, professional, respectful, and diverse.” Egerstedt added, “Seeing students flourish and grow gives Dr. Bakir immense joy and gratitude.”

Outstanding Faculty Research Author Award 

This year’s Outstanding Faculty Research Author Award goes to Cheng Zhu, Regents Professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering and J. Erskine Love Jr. Chair in the College of Engineering. The award recognizes faculty who most contributed to highly impactful publications describing the results of research conducted at Georgia Tech.

Zhu is best known for his discoveries in the field of mechanobiology, an emerging field at the intersection of biology, engineering, and physics. He employs biomechanical approaches to study how cells sense, respond, adapt, function, and develop in their changing mechanical environment. His work has significantly influenced the fields of immunology, hemostasis (stopping blood flow from an injured blood vessel), and thrombosis (blood clots in a vessel).

Susan S. Margulies, Wallace H. Coulter Department Chair and professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering, nominated Zhu for the award.

“Professor Cheng Zhu is a world leader in molecular mechanobiology,” Margulies says. “His discoveries help us better understand and treat infections, cancer, and cardiovascular diseases.”

Outstanding Achievement in Research Program Development Award

The Outstanding Achievement in Research Program Development Award is given annually to the research team that creates a new thought leadership platform for significantly expanding Georgia Tech’s research portfolio. This year’s recipients are Krishnendu Roy and Johnna S. Temenoff, director and deputy director, respectively, of the NSF Engineering Research Center for Cell Manufacturing Technologies (CMaT). Roy also holds the Robert A. Milton Chair and is the director of the Marcus Center for Cell-Therapy Characterization and Manufacturing and the Center for ImmunoEngineering. Temenoff holds the Carol Ann and David D. Flanagan Professorship II and is the co-director of the Regenerative Engineering and Medical Center, as well.

CMaT is the world’s first and only center focused on developing new tools, technologies, and processes for scalable, quality-driven biomanufacturing of cell therapies.

New cell therapies, especially stem cell and immune cell, have the potential to revolutionize treatments of unsolved and chronic medical conditions. In the past, manufacturing failures, financial challenges, and lower-than-expected sales have hampered the transition of new cell therapies from clinical trials to the open market. The biomanufacturing community needs new production tools and technologies; robust supply-chain, storage, and distribution logistics; and a well-trained cell-manufacturing workforce. These are the challenges that CMaT, under the leadership of Roy and Temenoff, is designed to meet.

Roy and Temenoff were nominated by Susan S. Margulies, Wallace H. Coulter Department Chair and professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering.

“Professors Roy and Temenoff have helped bring together a highly diverse local and national team . . . to solve the critical challenges facing cell manufacturing,” Margulies writes. “Such a multidisciplinary, comprehensive approach could be emulated to solve other grand challenges.”

Outstanding Achievement in Early Career Research

James Dahlman, assistant professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering, is being recognized with the award for Outstanding Achievement in Early Career Research. The award is given annually to a faculty member, within eight years of his or her initial appointment, who has made significant discoveries or advancements in his or her research, visibly influencing society or one or more scholarly communities.

Dahlman’s work is in the area of testing nanoparticles used to deliver RNA-based gene therapies to diseased cells. Previously, each nanoparticle had to be tested individually in living animals to see whether it could deliver, for example, liver therapy to liver cells.

Dahlman developed a way to encode each candidate nanoparticle with an identifying DNA sequence called a barcode. With his barcode, 300 nanoparticles could be tested at once in a living animal and successful candidates later identified through gene sequencing. This discovery considerably speeds up research on potentially lifesaving RNA-based drugs. Using traditional methods, it took Dahlman five years to find one non-liver nanoparticle; within the past 18 months, his lab has found approximately eight.

Susan S. Margulies, Wallace H. Coulter Department Chair and professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering, nominated Dahlman for the award.

“At the age of 33, James transformed the field of RNA therapies,” Margulies says. “He is internationally known within the nanomedicine community as someone whose work is repeatable, robust, and transformational.”

All awardees, including those listed above, will be featured on the Faculty and Staff Honors website.

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