Kenyon’s CAREER Grant Winners

Written by Samantha Neilson, Kenyon Class ’23

Nestled behind Hannah and Rosse Hall is the Science Quad. Within these walls is a hub for interdisciplinary research and collaboration at Kenyon.

Countless organizations provide funding for STEM research. Among them is the National Science Foundation (NSF), an independent federal agency dedicated to providing funding for researchers and educators. Of the NSF grants, the CAREER award is the most prestigious. Each year, 500 CAREER grants are awarded to distinguished tenure-track, early-career faculty who demonstrate leadership in integrating education and research. It  provides $400,000 or more funding over five years.  

The CAREER grant remains especially competitive among liberal arts institutions. Kenyon has an unprecedented three CAREER winners— associate professor of physics Aaron Reinhard, the Ashby Denoon Assistant Professor of Neuroscience Sarah Petersen, and associate professor of physics and the Harvey F. Lodish Faculty Development Chair in the Natural Sciences, Madeline Wade.

Professor Reinhard joined the department of physics in 2017. The CAREER grant is his first award from NSF. His research centers around the Rydberg excitation blockade, or the suppression of laser excitation to highly excited states due to strong atom-atom interactions. He seeks to quantify the extent to which state-mixing interactions reduce the blockade efficiency. By better understanding the negative implications of state mixing, Reinhard hopes his data will yield insights for security and encryption of quantum computers.

Much of his passion for his work stems from watching students grow as researchers. Although students at larger institutions may wait until graduate school to get hands-on time in the lab, at Kenyon, undergraduates take an active role: “The scale of my lab is very well matched to something like Kenyon… It’s really well suited for undergraduate students to do everything. That’s what I love about my research in physics.”

Professor Reinhard collaborates with students in his lab.

Reinhard has published two articles about his grant research so far: “A pressure-tuned Fabry Pérot interferometer for laser frequency stabilization and tuning” was published in Physical Review Research and examines the use of interferometers to stabilize and tune lasers when no atomic reference is available.  Quantifying the impact of state mixing on the Rydberg excitation blockade, also published in  Physical Review Research, looks at how state mixing interferes with the blockade mechanism.

What keeps Reinhard going? For him, physics has always been fun. “I’ve always been interested in getting my hands on things myself, being able to do all aspects of the problem myself.”

I’ve always been interested in getting my hands on things myself, being able to do all aspects of the problem myself.

Professor Reinhard

Reinhard’s CAREER work also involves a comprehensive educational component. During his first years teaching introductory physics, Reinhard observed that students exhibited short-term recall but a loss of retention of information over time. To help foster a deeper encoding of material, Reinhard designed a series of metacognitive exercises in which students reflected on learning immediately after it occurred. For the past two years, he has applied these techniques and is currently analyzing data. Reinhard plans to publish a paper on his educational research program in October 2021.

Like Reinhard, Professor Wade also participates in pioneering physics research. She joined the Physics Department  in 2015, and specializes in gravitational-wave physics, astrophysics, and data analysis. 

Wade is an active researcher with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) project, a large-scale physics experiment and observatory that searches for gravitational waves and ripples in space-time. This international collaboration is one of the biggest experiments of the millennium and involves over 1000 researchers.

Professor Wade’s view looking down the arm of the LIGO Hanford detector.

Wade first became acquainted with LIGO in 2010. Her CAREER project, “LIGO Calibration, Gravitational-Wave Searches, and Parameter Estimation in the Advanced Detector Era,” focuses on the calibration of the LIGO detectors used to identify gravitational waves. As the chair of the calibration group, Wade oversees the analysis of microscopic wiggles in the mirror detector and ensures strain (the measurement of the degree of movement in the mirrors) data is accurate, relevant, and readily-available.

Although it can take hundreds of years to observe events in space-time, Wade was lucky enough to be a member of the group that discovered the first gravitational-wave. On September 14, 2015,  Wade was working at her desk when an email pinged in. “I remember opening my email and seeing a long string of emails about a signal in the detector. … I ran down the hall to my husband’s office (Leslie Wade, associate professor of physics) and asked: did you see this? Did we just discover gravitational waves?” 

I remember opening my email and seeing a long string of emails about a signal in the detector… I ran down the hall to my husband’s office and asked: did you see this? Did we just discover gravitational waves?

Professor Wade

It is the network of LIGO researchers worldwide, and Wade and her team here at Kenyon, that helped make this remarkable discovery possible. The Wades are co-principal investigators of Kenyon’s LIGO lab. Working with 5-7 undergraduate students at a time, they support research which spans from seeking out neutron stars to searching for black holes. Professor Wade especially enjoys advising her student researchers: “It is so exciting to see Kenyon students make meaningful contributions to the research.”

Professor Wade and a group of student researchers.

So far, she has published four articles directly related to her CAREER research. “Characterization of systematic error in Advanced LIGO calibration,” published in Classical and Quantum Gravity, which examines ways to improve the methods used to quantify the response of the detectors, “Reconstructing the calibrated strain signal in the Advanced LIGO detectors,”published in Classical and Quantum Gravity,  “GstLAL: A software framework for gravitational wave discovery,” published in SoftwareX, and “First Demonstration of Early Warning Gravitational-wave Alerts,” published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Like Reinhard, Professor Wade’s CAREER award also emphasizes the importance of a comprehensive educational component. Her grant helps fund the Radio and Optical Astronomy Research Group (ROAR), an astronomy research group that she co-runs with Professors Leslie Wade and Paula Turner. ROAR grants access to real astronomy research for Kenyon students through three pillars: learning about astronomy, doing astronomy, and promoting astronomy. Through this endeavor, Wade and a cohort of students support an astronomy club at Mt. Vernon High School.

Professor Sarah Petersen also understands the importance of investing in the next generation of young scientists. She traces the moment she knew she wanted to become a scientific researcher back to a high school health class. “I remember learning about a developing fetus and thinking, that is the coolest thing ever. I wanted to be an OB-GYN.”  

Over time, Professor Petersen realized her interest wasn’t in being a physician but in studying this process of genetic development. She sought out mentors in college and graduate school who ultimately inspired her to pursue a career as a neuroscientist.

She joined Kenyon in 2016, and currently teaches in the departments of neuroscience and biology. A developmental geneticist, Petersen and her research group use zebrafish to study the interactions between neurons and glia and their environments during neurodevelopment. 

Zebrafish larvae are the perfect organisms for this research as they are transparent and develop peripheral nerves rapidly. The zebrafish live in petri dishes in Petersen’s lab where her team watches them grow from the single-cell stage.  

 An image of a living larval zebrafish from a compound microscope that was purchased with CAREER grant funds (Zeiss AxioObserver).

Examining the gene expression pattern and movement in the larva, she studies the genetic factors that promote migration and differentiation of myelinating glial cells in peripheral nerves. “It’s extremely exciting work. We discovered a muscle mutant that interferes with the nervous system and are currently looking at how that works.”

Petersen’s CAREER funding directly facilitates greater efficiency in the lab. She was able to hire a lab manager to help maintain the fish colony and to support student research. She oversees over a dozen students undertaking projects in her lab, and also works closely with others hoping to carry out projects in the future. She urges her students to be independent thinkers: “I am constantly asking myself and my students: what’s the next question? Forward thinking is critical.”

I am constantly asking myself and my students: what’s the next question? Forward thinking is critical.

Professor Petersen

In addition to her research group, Petersen advises remote BIO 110 students looking at defects in the zebrafish. She also emphasizes scientific communication, bridging the gap between researchers and the public by teaching students how to make scientific writing accessible for all audiences.

Professor Petersen is grateful for the community here at Kenyon and is excited to continue to study genetic development in her lab. “It’s so great to be at a place that is small but mighty and understands the needs of running a research group. This group network is so special.”

CAREER grants are a unique opportunity for early-career faculty to integrate their research and educational goals. To those considering applying, Reinhard, Petersen, and Wade offer words of wisdom. 

“Find something that excites you. … Find research where the everyday tasks are fun” said Reinhard. 

“The CAREER grant— and any scientific grant— requires creativity, persistence, and the ability to turn something bad into something good,” Petersen reflects. 

The CAREER grant– and any scientific grant– requires creativity, persistence, and the ability to turn something bad into something good.

Professor Petersen

Above all, grant work requires the ability to make and execute a plan. Reinhard, Petersen, and Wade recommend keeping an open line of communication with program sponsors at NSF, and creating equally-comprehensive research and educational components. In the words of Petersen, “dream big, create a plan, and stick to it. You never know when you might actually get an award! You absolutely have to go for it.”

The CAREER grant is an incredible opportunity for tenure-track faculty. The Office for Sponsored Faculty Projects (OSFP) invites those interested to reach out to William Billiter or Deedra Sukrungruang with any questions or to seek guidance on developing competitive proposals.

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