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NSF awards bring new dark matter, meteorology research and opportunities

Three UH Mānoa professors have won National Science Foundation (NSF) awards to support fundamental research that also brings opportunities for hands-on discovery to undergraduates and Hawai‘i high school students.

The prestigious NSF CAREER grants were awarded to Jason Kumar in Physics, Jennifer Small in Meteorology and Yi Zuo in Mechanical Engineering. These UH Mānoa assistant professors are considered early-career faculty with promising futures in research and science education.

Jennifer Small

Jennifer Small, Assistant Professor, Meteorology

Small is investigating the effects of aerosols on clouds and precipitation. Her NSF CAREER project merges state-of-the-art research in the fields of cloud physics, aerosol science and climate change to address uncertainty about the overall climatic effects of fine particles in the air, both natural and man-made.

“Aerosol-cloud interactions are among the most important and least understood factors affecting climate change,” Small said. “It’s the biggest question mark.”

Small is using data from remote sensing studies, direct observation, and global climate models to analyze aerosol-cloud interactions on a variety of spatial and temporal scales. Small’s grant will fund this research and help her to identify classroom connections to the climate story. She plans to bring innovative multimedia teaching tools to her introductory climate courses at UH Mānoa, including classroom assignments for students to produce podcasts relating atmospheric science content to personal, real-world experiences.

Small will also organize Hawai‘i’s first “Expanding Your Horizons” conference in 2014. Modeled after a popular conference series, Small plans to bring together local women scientists and industry leaders with the goal of educating and attracting high school and junior high school girls to STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

Jason Kumar, Assistant Professor, Physics

Jason Kumar, Assistant Professor, Physics

Dark matter research lies at the intersection of high-energy physics, astrophysics and cosmology. For his NSF CAREER research project, Kumar is examining new and emerging dark matter models to determine whether they can explain unexpected signals picked up during recent dark matter detection experiments.

As part of UH Mānoa’s QuarkNet program—a long-term, national collaboration among high school teachers, their students and particle physicists—Kumar has been working with teachers from Kahuku, Kamehameha, Maryknoll, Maui and Punahou high schools. He is helping them to identify and bring the most exciting current developments in high-energy physics into their classrooms.

Kumar is quick to highlight the leading role that the University has played in a large number of high-profile particle physics experiments, including work at the KamLAND and Super-Kamiokande neutrino observatories.

“Hawai‘i is one of the most isolated land-masses in the world, and many high school students have not spent much time on the mainland,” Kumar said. “I believe that a vital part of any effort to engage students in high-energy physics research is to demonstrate a connection to something they can participate in while they are here on Hawai‘i.”

Yi Zuo, Assistant Professor, Mechanical Engineering

Yi Zuo, Assistant Professor, Mechanical Engineering

Zuo is studying the molecular mechanisms of lung surfactant, which is crucial to maintaining normal respiratory function in air sacs of the lung. His NSF CAREER project goal is to help expand the use of clinical surfactants to treat various neonatal and adult respiratory diseases, including respiratory distress syndrome.

The NSF CAREER awards will provide partial funding for the professors’ research and outreach activities over the next five years.

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