Three Duke Faculty Win White House Honors

Engineer, mathematician and stem cell investigator receive awards given to "the most promising researchers in the nation within their fields"

Presidential Early Career Award Winners (from left) Silvia Ferrari, Jonathan Mattingly and Tannishtha Reya

Three Duke University faculty members have won the highest honor that the U.S. government bestows on young scientists and engineers.

Silvia Ferrari, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, Jonathan Mattingly, an associate professor of mathematics, and Tannishtha Reya, an assistant professor of pharmacology and cancer biology in the medical school, received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers at a ceremony Wednesday, July 26, at the White House.

The awards recognize "the most promising researchers in the nation within their fields," according to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. In all, 56 researchers received awards.

Duke is one of only two universities to have three faculty members win awards; the other is the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The awards to Ferrari and Mattingly follow National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development awards that they won in 2005. These awards are providing each researcher more than $400,000 of research funding over five years.

As director of the Laboratory for Intelligent Systems and Controls at Duke's Pratt School of Engineering, Ferrari is advancing adaptive control technology -- machines that operate automatically without human intervention and that "learn" and make changes over time. Such technology is used in a variety of industries as well as in aircraft equipped with computer-controlled "fly-by-wire" systems.

"The design of new controllers that are adaptive, but still safe, will widen the range of workable applications and draw great benefit from interdisciplinary research among engineers, biologists and computer scientists," said Ferrari, who has been at Duke since 2003.

Mattingly, who has been at Duke since 2002, studies "stochastic" problems that involve randomness, chance or probability. Among his efforts, he is developing mathematical tools that include the effects of randomness in studying models of complex systems. In particular, he wants to understand how random effects on a smaller scale can influence a system's behavior on a larger scale. This kind of behavior is important in phenomena from turbulent fluid flow to the chemical networks at work in living systems.

"Computer simulations of stochastic systems are already in use in everything from running our economy, to designing the next generation of drugs, to planning our cities," he wrote in a summary of his research. "Hence, it behooves the scientific community to continue to explore the accuracy and efficiency of these simulations and ascertain how they might be improved."

Reya has significantly advanced the field of stem cell research by demonstrating how "hematopoietic" or blood stem cells maintain their ability to perpetually renew themselves and survive indefinitely. Her discoveries ultimately may enable scientists to grow stem cells in the laboratory and transplant them into patients with blood disorders, immune defects and select genetic diseases. In addition, her work suggests that the signals that are critical for growth of normal stem cells may be hijacked by cancer cells to allow their uncontrolled growth.

Funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, among other organizations, her major findings include identifying the roles of two signals -- Notch and Wnt -- that are critical for hematopoietic stem cells to regenerate indefinitely instead of maturing into specialized cells. "Our most recent work suggests that at least in hematopoietic stem cells, Notch may have a dominant role in maintaining stem cells in an undifferentiated state, while Wnt may have a dominant role in their proliferation and survival," Reya said. Her new presidential award provides an additional five years of research funding from the National Institutes of Health.

Ferrari received a bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., and a Ph.D. in mechanical and aerospace engineering from PrincetonUniversity.

She won numerous awards at Princeton, and since coming to Duke she has won an Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Award, which provides three years of support that she is using to study sensor networks for use in surveillance systems that track multiple targets at once.

She also won the 2005 International Crime Analysis Association Research Award for her efforts to automate the criminal profiling systems used by police investigators by applying new computational techniques using neural networks and statistical probability methods.

Mattingly attended the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham, and received a bachelor's degree from Yale University and a Ph.D. from Princeton.

In addition to conducting research at Duke, he has worked at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.; Stanford University; the Universite de Provence, in Marseilles, France; and the Scuola Normale, in Pisa, Italy.

Reya came to Duke in 2001. Born in India, she received a bachelor's degree from Williams College and a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, and she held postdoctoral fellowships at the University of California, San Francisco, and Stanford University.

Among various honors, Reya has received the Ellison Medical Foundation New Scholar Award, the Cancer Research Institute Investigator Award and the Stafford Memorial Research Prize at Duke.