Improving Computer Chips, Unraveling Epilepsy Mysteries

  • August 20th, 2003

NSF Rewards Two UA Faculty for Research

by Chris Bryant and Mary Wymer

Drs. Guy Caldwell and Tonya Klein each received a National Science Foundation CAREER Award—part of the NSF's program to help top performers early in their careers develop as both educators and researchers.
Drs. Guy Caldwell and Tonya Klein each received a National Science Foundation CAREER Award—part of the NSF’s program to help top performers early in their careers develop as both educators and researchers.

The National Science Foundation has awarded two University of Alabama faculty with CAREER Awards, NSF’s most prestigious awards for top-performing scientists and engineers who are early in their careers.

Dr. Guy Caldwell, Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences, has been awarded a five-year, $628,000 grant to advance his studies into possible genetic causes of epilepsy. Dr. Tonya Klein, a Reichhold-Shumaker Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering, has been awarded a five-year, $570,000 grant to further explore ways of producing smaller and less expensive computer chips.

Both awards are courtesy of NSF’s Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program. NSF established the CAREER program in 1995 to help top performers early in their careers to develop simultaneously their contributions and commitment to research and to education.

According to the NSF website, the CAREER program supports the activities of those teacher-scholars who are “most likely to become the academic leaders of the 21st century.” CAREER awardees are selected on the basis of creative, career-development plans that effectively integrate research and education within the context of the mission of their institution.

Klein will investigate “atomic layer deposition.” This is a method for depositing thin films—only several molecules thick—one atomic layer at a time, as a process for forming materials used in electronic and magnetic devices, including computer chips.

As electronic devices have gotten smaller and faster during the last decade, the components that operate these devices require thinner films, some of which are less than 1,000th the thickness of a human hair. “Atomic layer deposition is a process being developed in our lab that will allow us to precisely fabricate these thin films one atom in thickness at a time,” explained Klein.

“One obstacle we face is thin film nucleation—where molecules cluster and pile up in islands on the surface rather than arranging themselves uniformly as one layer,” said Klein. Klein will use spectroscopic techniques with x-rays and infrared light to probe the chemical nature of the molecules as they bond to the surface.

Caldwell uses a microscopic worm, known as C. elegans, to gain a better understanding of epilepsy at the molecular level. “We can now create worms that have epileptic seizures in our lab,” Caldwell said. “If we can deduce the specific defect, hopefully we can go in and find things that will cure it, either genetically or chemically.”

More than 50 percent of all human hereditary diseases have been linked to genetic components found in the worm, said Caldwell, whose funding sources also include the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The worm contains only 302 neurons, in contrast to the 100 billion neurons located in the human brain alone. This makes it easier, Caldwell said, to trace its protein functions within the neurons and related cells. All the typical hallmarks of the human nervous system, including key neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, are present in the worm.

Caldwell’s microscopic worms were featured as the cover story in the Feb. 1 issue of Human Molecular Genetics, a top-ranked human disease research journal. That attention came after tests in his UA lab indicated a protein, coded within human DNA, can suppress the potentially harmful clumping of other proteins. This discovery has implications in dystonia, Parkinson’s disease and other neurological disorders. A patent is pending on that discovery, made possible through funding by the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation.

Earlier this year, the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research named Caldwell one of its Protein Degradation Program grant recipients, awarding Caldwell funding for two years to advance his research into that central nervous system disorder, which is estimated to affect one million Americans.

Both Caldwell and Klein integrate their research within their classroom teaching. Klein joined UA’s College of Engineering in 1999—the same year Caldwell joined UA’s College of Arts and Sciences.

The University of Alabama, part of The University of Alabama System, is the state’s flagship university. UA shapes a better world through its teaching, research and service. With a global reputation for excellence, UA provides an inclusive, forward-thinking environment and nearly 200 degree programs on a beautiful, student-centered campus. A leader in cutting-edge research, UA advances discovery, creative inquiry and knowledge through more than 30 research centers. As the state’s largest higher education institution, UA drives economic growth in Alabama and beyond.