Michigan Tech Honors Two with 2008 Research Award
This year, two faculty members will receive Michigan Tech's Research Award.
Ravindra Pandey, professor and chair of the physics department, was selected for his long and exemplary track record of high-impact research in the theory of materials.
Mathematical Sciences Professor Shuanglin Zhang was chosen for his groundbreaking work in statistical genetics, which has been instrumental in raising the profile of his department nationally and boosting it into the top 100 in the US in terms of research funding.
"I'd like to congratulate both Ravi and Shuanglin," said Vice President for Research David Reed. "It's really remarkable to present two Research Awards in a single year, and in this case, it's fully justified."
Zhang's research has had a phenomenal impact on his department, said Mark Gockenbach, chair of mathematical sciences. "It's largely due to Shuanglin that the department made it into the top 100 nationally in terms of research expenditures," he said. "He’s also helped set a new standard for the department in terms of advising graduate students and postdocs—he's kicked that up to a new level."
Zhang is advising four of the 12 doctoral students within the department's statistical genetics group, which includes Zhang's wife, Assistant Professor Qiuying Sha. Because Zhang has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease), the group meets for a Sunday evening seminar every week at the couple's home.
Using his computer to communicate, Zhang said he was "really excited" when he learned he would receive the Research Award.
"Lots of Michigan Tech faculty do awesome research," said Sha. "We are honored, and we really appreciate Mark for nominating Shuanglin." She also thanked the the graduate students and postdocs on their team for contributing to the award-winning research.
Zhang and his team develop statistical tools to isolate the genetic causes of disease, a foundational effort to cure some of humankind's most intractable illnesses. "Usually, a single gene doesn't have much effect," said Gockenbach. "Combinations of genes are behind these diseases. The human genome has a large number of genes to begin with, so the number of possible combinations is astronomical."
Zhang and his team have identified 11 genes associated with type 2 diabetes using a novel statistical method that first narrows the field of potentially dangerous genes and then determines which act on their own and which act in combination. This test compares the genomes of unrelated groups with and without a specific disease; in this study, they analyzed the genomes of over 1,000 people, half with type 2 diabetes and half without.
They have also developed a powerful new statistical tool that can cast back through generations of a family to determine which genes are associated with inherited illnesses, such as ALS and diabetes.
Zhang has authored or coauthored 60 papers in refereed publications, many in the top journals in his field. He has been the principal or co-principal investigator on over $2 million in research funding from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.
Zhang received the mathematical sciences department's Outstanding Research Award in 2002, 2004, 2005 and 2006 and the Outstanding Research Award three times at Heilongjiang University, in Harbin, China. He came to the US in 1999 as a postdoctoral associate at the Yale University School of Medicine and joined the Michigan Tech faculty in 2001.
Daniel Schaid, a professor of genomics at the Mayo Clinic, wrote in support of Zhang's nomination. "Throughout the years, I have closely followed Dr. Zhang's publications on statistical genetics because of his impressive insights into genetic problems and sophisticated statistical skills," he wrote. "When I was editor of the journal Genetic Epidemiology, Dr. Zhang's submitted publications often received highly favorable reviews, resulting in important publications . . . He is well deserving of the Research Award."
Hongyu Zhao, a professor of biostatistics and genetics at Yale, praised Zhang's research contributions. "He has established himself as one of the leaders in a highly competitive field that holds the promise of helping geneticists identify targets to treat human diseases," Zhao said. "His work has been truly path-breaking and highly influential, reflected by his publications, the grants that have been awarded to him, the presentations he has been invited to give, and, most importantly, the highest respect he commands among his peers in the community."
"It would be impossible to enumerate all the contributions he has made," Zhao added. "In addition, he has demonstrated the highest level of integrity, both in his interactions with people and in the quality of his work."
A computational physicist, Pandey uses mathematics to better understand the nature of materials at their most fundamental level. "I use theoretical methods based on quantum mechanics to solve the so-called Schrödinger equation for a given system," he said.
In the ultra-micro-world of quantum mechanics, the Schrödinger equation is like Newton's Laws for the macro-world: it describes the properties of electrons in their dual wave-particle nature, as Newton's Laws address how force affects the motion of a body.
Once those properties are determined, "we can calculate very accurately the structural, mechanical, electronic and optical properties of a material," Pandey said.
His group models crystals, nanoscale materials (including semiconductors), and carbon and boron nanostructures, and studies the interactions between engineered materials and living tissue. Recently, he determined that carbon nanotubes do not react with the four bases that make up DNA. The work opens the door to new cancer treatments using nanotubes to shuttle chemotherapy drugs directly to a tumor.
Among his accomplishments, Pandey has identified defects in crystalline structures that were limiting the performance of Air Force laser systems. His work with Dow Corning helped the company select better materials to use in integrated circuits.
He is now studying the use of carbon nanotubes as a faster, cheaper way to sequence DNA.
Pandey has published more than 100 articles in refereed scientific journals and has secured nearly $3 million in research funding. His publications have been cited more than 1,500 times. He does it, he said, "to satisfy my intellectual curiosity and for the joy of discovery."
"Ravi’s research style is quite personal," wrote his colleague Miguel Alvrez Blanco, a professor at the University of Oviedo in Spain. "He has a great instinct for picking important problems . . . grasping solutions that are generally valid, and publishing an important, field-guiding paper before leaving the problem for a new one."
Pura Jenna, a Jefferson Science Fellow with the US Department of State, calls Pandey "a prolific scientist whose publication record is remarkable in both breadth and productivity." Jenna also cited Pandey's gift for succeeding in both basic and applied research, particularly as funding for "curiosity-driven science" has become scarce.
Associate Professor Yoke Khin Yap (Physics), who nominated Pandey for the Research Award, stressed his ability to support others. "Not only has he been continuously successful, but at the same time, he has also helped other faculty succeed in their own research."
During Pandey's eight years as chair, two physics faculty members have received NSF CAREER Awards and a third has received a Young Investigator Award. "Our research expenditures have continued to increase and the enrollment of graduate and undergraduate students is up, plus Ravi has published five or six papers a year since he’s been chair," said Yap, "all while helping other people succeed."
"He's also very flexible when it comes to research," Yap added. "He knows what’s important and will immediately plop himself down into that area. He has great insights."
Pandey's graduate students also reflect on his abilities as a teacher and mentor. "A lot of them do very well, going on to national labs and big companies," Yap said. "It's a measure of their excellent training."
"I would rate Dr. Pandey as the top successful computational researcher in the physics department," Physics Professor Don Beck wrote in his nomination. "He combines this with being an exceptional department chair." In particular, Beck credited Pandey for developing "the general atmosphere of cooperation throughout the department, which derives in part from the fairness with which people are treated and his willingness to shoulder a lot of the department's workload himself."
Pandey credited the late electrical engineering professor Barry Kunz and Sung Lee, the former vice provost for research and dean of the graduate school, for helping launch his early endeavors at Michigan Tech. More recently, "the credit goes to my students, the postdoctoral fellows and the visiting scientists in my group," he said. "I'd also like to thank my colleagues and Dean [Max] Seel, who have given me the time to do research in addition to performing my administrative duties as chair."
Pandey and Zhang will each receive $2,500 as Research Award recipients.