Sloan fellowships awarded to four U-M researchers


Four University of Michigan researchers have been named Sloan Research Fellows for 2021.

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation recognizes 128 early career researchers from the United States and Canada whose “creativity, innovation and research accomplishments make them stand out as the next generation of scientific leaders,” according to the organization.

U-M’s researchers include mathematician Alexander Perry, earth scientist Sierra Petersen, neuroscientist Swathi Yadlapalli and physicist Liuyan Zhao.

Perry’s area of research is algebraic geometry, or the study of spaces of solutions to polynomial equations. His work springs from fundamental problems about the structure and classification of these spaces, like how to determine when one can be transformed into another, or how to construct spaces with highly constrained geometric properties.

“To study these problems, I develop and apply theories about invariants of algebro-geometric spaces, like derived categories and Hodge structures,” said Perry, assistant professor of mathematics. “With the Sloan Foundation’s generous support, I am excited to make further progress on this work.”

Petersen’s research uses the chemistry of fossil shells to reconstruct climate conditions in the past. Her current research direction uses high-resolution geochemical techniques to identify climate changes on seasonal, instead of annual, timescales — the timescales most relevant to humanity.

“It is an honor to have been selected for this fellowship,” said Petersen, assistant professor of earth and environmental sciences. “The flexibility that comes with these research funds will allow me to continue my exploratory research reconstructing changes in the seasonal cycle of temperature in the deep past.

“We are using cutting-edge isotopic techniques to answer questions like, ‘When global climate was much warmer on average, how did that translate to changes in seasonal extremes? It may not be easy for a person to feel 1 degree Celsius of global warming, but long-time residents of a place can remember when winters used to be colder or there were fewer heat waves. Seasonal changes were likely as important for the day-to-day existences of ancient organisms as they are for humans today.”

Yadlapalli studies the mechanisms of biological timekeepers using the tiny nervous system of the fruit fly, drosophila melanogaster. Living organisms as diverse as bacteria, plants, insects and humans have evolved certain circadian clocks to keep track of time.

Circadian clocks orchestrate the daily rhythmic (~24 hour) expression of a large number of genes and affect much of human behavior and physiology, she says. The Yadlapalli lab hopes to identify fundamental neural and molecular mechanisms controlling circadian rhythms that could ultimately lead to better strategies to treat human sleep and circadian disorders, as well as jetlag.

“I am delighted and honored to receive this honor,” said Yadlapalli, assistant professor of cell and developmental biology at Michigan Medicine. “The freedom and flexibility offered by the fellowship will enable my lab to pursue new and challenging questions to achieve a deeper understanding of how our cells keep time.”

Zhao studies the topic of emergent phases of matter in solids. Emergence describes the collective behavior of the whole that is different from its individual parts. According to Zhao, we see this in a broad class of quantum materials — Zhao’s research topic — sharing the same emergence concept as the formation of cultures in human society, the flocking of birds and the development of varied phases of matter in materials.

Her work currently focuses on discovering and understanding novel phases that emerge from two regimes: first, the 2-dimensional limit where interactions are confined within an atomic thick layer; and second, the strongly correlated regime for which especially strong interactions between electrons induce both competition and cooperation. Her work at U-M focuses on developing ways to manipulate the interactions in these two families of materials.

“I am very honored to receive a Sloan research fellowship in physics this year,” said Zhao, assistant professor of physics. “The fellowship will be used to explore a new research direction in my group, as well as in our field, which is to design magnetic properties in atomically thin magnetic superstructures. I am very much excited about the prospects in this new direction.”

Fellows receive two-year, $75,000 fellowships that can be spent to advance the fellow’s research. Fellows from the 2021 cohort are drawn from a diverse range of 58 institutions across the United States and Canada, from large public university systems to Ivy League institutions to small liberal arts colleges.

“A Sloan Research Fellow is a rising star, plain and simple,” said Adam Falk, president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. “To receive a fellowship is to be told by the other scientific community that your achievements as a young scholar are already driving the research frontier.”

Open to scholars in eight scientific and technical fields — chemistry, computational and evolutionary molecular biology, computer science, earth system science, economics, mathematics, neuroscience and physics — the Sloan Research Fellowships are awarded in close coordination with the scientific community.


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