UA Professors Win NSF CAREER Awards

From left, Dr. Yuping Bao, an assistant professor in chemical and biological engineering; Dr. Samantha Hansen, assistant professor of geological sciences; and Dr. Dawen Li, assistant professor in electrical and computer engineering.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The National Science Foundation selected three University of Alabama professors for CAREER Awards totaling more than $1.6 million for research projects related to medical imaging, earthquake seismology and solar energy.

These awards, presented to Dr. Yuping Bao, an assistant professor in chemical and biological engineering; Dr. Samantha Hansen, assistant professor of geological sciences; and Dr. Dawen Li, assistant professor in electrical and computer engineering, are NSF’s most prestigious recognition of top-performing young scientists beginning their careers.

Besides their appointments in the College of Engineering, Li and Bao are researchers in the Center for Material in Information Technology, or MINT, at UA. Hansen is a part of UA’s College of Arts and Sciences.

With the $493,000 grant, Bao will explore a novel technique for creating magnetic nanoparticles, and the usefulness of an iron oxide nanowire, a thin worm-like magnetic nanoparticle, to enhance medical imaging.

Magnetic resonance imaging, commonly called MRI, essentially takes a picture of the body’s insides through the magnetism of the body’s atoms. Either orally or through injection, patients scanned through the MRI first take a chemical to help the MRI take a better picture. Currently, these contrast agents are nearly always made of a rare-earth metal called gadolinium that brightens and enhances the image.

Gadolinium-based contrast agents have flaws. Particular, they can be lethally toxic to patients with kidney or liver problems. The safer contrast agents for those with kidney or liver problems who need an MRI are tiny balls of iron oxide, but these spherical nanoparticles give way to darker images than traditional contrast agents. They also don’t circulate in the blood as long and end up in the liver and spleen. Therefore, these tiny iron oxide particles are primarily used for liver and spleen MRI scans.

A process developed by Bao to produce nano-sized iron oxide as thin wires could potentially not only offer a solution to MRI patients with liver or kidney problems but also provide a more effective agent to regular patients. The iron oxide nanowires last longer inside the body and can produce bright images, giving them the image enhancement of gadolinium-based contrast agents and the safety of spherical iron oxide nanoparticles.

The success of the CAREER Award will directly contribute to the development of a safer and more effective contrast agent, addressing an on-going and long-felt need in the field. The grant will also help Bao continue science exploration outreach efforts at local schools.

Hansen, who came to UA in 2010, works in the field of earthquake seismology, and her $715,000, five-year grant will fund an expedition to deploy a new seismic operation in Antarctica, which should enhance scientists’ understanding of the Transantarctic Mountains and the Wilkes Subglacial Basin. Scientists consider this area of Antarctica to be a prime research location because of its unique geological features.

While previous seismic data has been collected there, Hansen’s new research is aimed at gaining more understanding of the mysterious development of these unique landscapes.

The new deployment will include installing a 15-station seismic network over an area in the northern Transantarctic Mountains that will collect data for three years. Hansen, who was previously involved with two deployment missions in Antarctica as part of a post-doctoral fellowship with Penn State University, and her colleagues will then analyze the information collected to form conclusions about the development of these unusual tectonic formations.

The CAREER grant will also provide several outreach opportunities that will pair Hansen with a high-school teacher who participates in the expedition and who will be a part of the field team that installs the seismic technology. She also hopes to extend her outreach into developing a field course for college students to get them acquainted with the field aspect of geology at an early stage in their education.The course would involve traveling to Yellowstone National Park to perform three weeks of intensive field study.

Li, who joined UA in 2008, will use his $400,000 grant over the next five years to study organic polymer solar cells that could initially replace traditional solar energy technology in niche applications.

The vast majority of solar cells available commercially are made from inorganic silicon that are heavy, easily breakable and consume energy during production. However, emerging organic polymer solar cells are made of a thin film, making them more flexible, lighter and cheaper to produce. Able to be printed roll-to-roll like a newspaper, they have great potential for large-scale production.

This emerging type of solar cell could initially be used to power a house by taping flexible organic solar cells onto windows or the roof or to recharge small consumer electronics in a car through a flexible sun-blocking shield of solar cells. Another interesting application could be for flexible displays. Travelers could carry a rolled/folded electronic map, with polymer solar cells integrated on their clothes to power the map.

Although there has been dramatic progress with energy conversion in organic polymer solar cells, they are currently about half as efficient at capturing the sun’s energy as silicon solar cells. They also don’t last as long. To address the efficiency and the reliability issues from polymer solar cells, Li proposes to make high-performance solar cells with a novel bilayer structure. The polymer brushes in the bottom layer provide direct pathways for electric current, while the top blend layer with a copolymer would allow for better harvesting of the sun’s energy.

“The research outcome will enrich current understanding of the fundamental structure-property relationships involved in polymer photovoltaics and drive polymer solar cells to become economically competitive in the near future,” Li said.

Besides the research, the grant will expose graduate and undergraduate students who work with Li to multidisciplinary training essential to success in their future careers. Li will also lead outreach efforts to minority grade-school students through the Alabama Black Belt program, developing science modules on nanotechnology and solar energy. He will provide training for secondary teachers to use the modules in class.

In 1837, The University of Alabama became one of the first five universities in the nation to offer engineering classes. Today, UA’s fully accredited College of Engineering has more than 3,300 students and more than 100 faculty. In the last eight years, students in the College have been named USA Today All-USA College Academic Team members, Goldwater, Hollings, Portz and Truman scholars.

UA’s College of Arts and Sciences, the University’s largest division and the largest liberal arts college in the state. Students from the College have won numerous national awards including Rhodes Scholarships, Goldwater Scholarships and memberships on the USA Today Academic All American Team.


Adam Jones, engineering public relations, 205/348-6444 or; Kelli Wright, communications specialist, College of Arts and Sciences, 205/348-8539 or


Dr. Yuping Bao, 205/348-9869,; Dr. Samantha Hansen, 205/348-7089,; Dr. Dawen Li, 205/348-9930,