Three named Sloan Fellows for outstanding scientific achievement


The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s 2023 list of researchers who stand out as the next generation of leaders in scientific research features University of Michigan researchers in chemistry, pharmacy and computer science.

Jennifer Bridwell-Rabb, assistant professor of chemistry in LSA; Tim Cernak, assistant professor of medicinal chemistry in the College of Pharmacy, and assistant professor of chemistry in LSA; and Roya Ensafi, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science in the College of Engineering, were awarded the annual fellowship intended to support tomorrow’s leaders in science and their promising research and scientific minds.

They are among 126 early-career researchers selected from 54 institutions in the United States and Canada.

“Sloan Research Fellows are shining examples of innovative and impactful research,” said Adam Falk, president of the Sloan Foundation. “We are thrilled to support their groundbreaking work, and we look forward to following their continued success.”

Fellows receive a two-year, $75,000 prize that can be used to advance their research. They must hold a doctorate or equivalent degree in chemistry, computer science, earth system science, economics, mathematics, neuroscience, physics or a related field.

Bridwell-Rabb and her lab use X-ray crystallography, enzymology, biophysical methods and biochemical approaches to study how microbes engineer and modify light-dependent processes.

Goals include investigating how the photosynthetic pigments chlorophyll and bacteriochlorophyll are modified in the presence and absence of oxygen to absorb a broader range of light; how enzymes use a common set of metallocenters to perform one, two or three hydroxylation reactions; and how light-dependent gene regulation is accomplished.

“We are very excited to receive this recognition and humbled to be included on this list,” Bridwell-Rabb said. “Thank you to the Sloan Foundation for supporting our goals of using structure-function relationships to rationally redesign metalloproteins for biotechnological purposes.”

Cernak’s lab studies the interface of chemical synthesis and computer science. The research explores the encoding in a small molecule’s structure and the synthetic strategies that access diverse molecular structures — paramount to the invention of novel, functional molecules such as dyes, agrichemicals, fragrances and pharmaceuticals.

The lab uses algorithms, robotics and data science to study new chemical reactions and synthetic routes to natural products and biochemical probes. Overall, the lab pursues opportunities to positively impact human health.

“We are humbled and honored to be recognized in this way,” Cernak said. “With this support, we aim to pivot our work in chemical synthesis and data science to impact multiple industries.”

Ensafi’s research broadly lies at the intersection of networking, security and privacy and internet measurement. She and her lab team build scalable techniques and systems to protect users’ internet experiences from disruption, surveillance and digital inequity.

The research uses a data-driven approach to detect and defend against powerful network intermediaries, government threat actors and technologies, and practices that impact users’ freedom of expression online.

“Thank you to the Sloan Foundation for acknowledging our research that aims to safeguard users’ online experiences against disruptions, surveillance and digital inequality,” Ensafi said. “A heartfelt thanks to my students, mentors, friends in civil society, and the Free and Open Communications on the Internet and Open Technology Fund communities for their support and inspiration that have allowed me to push the limits without any fear.”

Sloan Research Fellowships, in existence since 1955 and awarded to some of North America’s most noteworthy scientists including future Nobel Prize winners, often are seen as a marker of quality of an institution’s science faculty and a sign of an institution’s success attracting the most promising junior researchers.

Nominations for the 2024 Sloan Research Fellowships will open July 15.


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