Engineer, Two Other Duke University Faculty Members Win White House Award

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- An engineer and two other Duke University faculty members have won the highest honor that the U.S. government bestows on young scientists and engineers.

Silvia Ferrari, assistant professor of mechanical engineering in the Pratt School of 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.

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 the Pratt School, 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 National Science Foundation said Ferrari "has become a leader in the new field of adaptive dynamic programming, which provides general-purpose methods for managing and designing complex systems of all kinds, as well as insight into how the brain works." “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 the Pratt School of Engineering since 2003.

Pratt Dean Kristina Johnson said Ferrari "is an outstanding engineer and the recognition as one of only 56 PECASE awards in all fields of science and engineering recognizes her exciting and innovative work in adapative control of complex systems."

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.

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.

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 Princeton University.

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.