Eight graduate students awarded Harper Dissertation Fellowship

Eight students in the Physical Sciences Division were awarded the William Rainey Harper Dissertation Fellowship, one of the highest honors that the University of Chicago grants doctoral candidates. Each Harper Fellowship includes a $4,000 stipend. 

“The students selected for the Harper Fellowship show a great deal of initiative, tenacity, and imagination,” said Michael Foote, deputy dean for academic affairs in the Physical Sciences Division. “And we see these students as future scientific leaders in their respective fields.”

Logan Clark, a PhD candidate in physics, devised an innovative way to study ultracold atom collisions. Typically, physicists look at atoms colliding individually, but Clark and other individuals on the project developed a technique to look at atoms colliding collectively. This approach creates jets of many atoms, which may be very useful for designing next-generation sensors. “I really appreciate having the Fellowship so I can take my time writing my thesis,” says Clark. “I am also very grateful to all the wonderful people that I’ve gotten to work with.” In addition to having papers published in Science and Physical Review Letters, Clark is a recipient of the Grainger Graduate Fellowship.

To better understand the composition of the Earth’s interior, Lily Thompson, a PhD candidate in geophysical sciences, studies the material properties of hydrous phases under extreme high-pressure and high-temperature conditions. Utilizing a combination of theoretical calculations and synchrotron-based diamond anvil cell experiments, Thompson investigates the distribution of hydrogen in the Earth’s mantle. “Constraining the quantity and cycling of hydrogen in the deep Earth informs our understanding of the formation and evolution of Earth and other rocky planets,” says Thompson. In addition to publishing three papers, Thompson has received an NSF EAR Postdoctoral Fellowship to continue her research at Northwestern University after graduation.

Kasturi Chakraborty, a PhD candidate in chemistry, uses DNA-based nanodevices as a diagnostic tool to tell whether lysosome, a specific compartment inside every cell, is working or not. Having a better understanding of lysosomes could lead to a better overall understanding of common neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s. “What I really like about UChicago is the amount of collaborative work we do,” says Chakraborty. “In developing this diagnostic tool, we were able to work with medical professionals and doctors, which enables us to do a lot of cool science.”

Through observational and theoretical efforts, Cameron J. Liang, a PhD candidate in astronomy and astrophysics, studies the properties of gas around galaxies. The first part of Liang’s thesis “involves data mining and analyses of UV quasar spectra observed by the Hubble Space Telescope and two million spectroscopically identified galaxies by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.” Liang’s thesis also “aims to fully characterize and model the global and local properties of clouds in the galactic sky and their relation with the stars in galaxies.” In addition to publishing several papers, Liang is a recipient of the NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship.

Yan Xu, a PhD candidate in chemistry, studies how the activation of inert bonds by using precious metals yields “high value-added products from simple chemicals.” “Due to their vast existence in organic molecules, the direct functionalization of unactivated C—H bonds will dramatically accelerate the assembling of complex molecules by circumventing the step-demanding pre-functionalization of substrates in a cost-, step-, and atom-economic manner,” explains Xu in his Harper Fellowship application, “As a result, the C—H functionalization reactions are of great interest in the fields of organic synthesis, biomedical research, and material science, some of which have found applications in the industrial production of agrochemicals and pharmaceuticals.” Xu has published papers in the Journal of the American Chemical Society and Nature Chemistry.

Merging both the biological and physical sciences, Josh Riback, a PhD candidate in the biophysical sciences program, studies biological responses to stress. More specifically, Riback focuses on how proteins respond to stress and the conformational lifecycle of proteins. “We reported that Poly(A)-Binding protein, a conserved eukaryotic stress granule marker, autonomously phase separates into a protein-rich gel in vitro in response to physiological perturbations such as heat and acid,” explains Riback in his Harper Fellowship application.

Clark Butler, a PhD candidate in mathematics, combines differential geometry, dynamical systems, and probability theory in his work. In his dissertation abstract, “Uniformly Quasiconformal Partically Hyperbolic Systems,” Butler explains, “A surprising number of rigidity problems originally posed in negatively curved geometry turn out to have solutions that are dynamical in nature.” He goes on to explain, “Our principal goal is to show that for all of the rigidity phenomena derived from uniform quasiconformality, not even the structure of an Anosov flow is necessary.”

Vivak Patel, a PhD candidate in statistics, studies how to use randomness to reduce the calculation time needed to solve a problem. For example, power generated by wind farms is inherently random due to the random nature of the wind, so power systems engineers work to determine how much mass is being rotated at a wind farm at any given moment. The next step is to formulate a problem to solve that equates to this quantity. “Unfortunately, such problems are extremely difficult and time-consuming to solve,” says Patel. “One modern way of improving classical procedures is to add randomness into the procedure in clever ways so that the overall run time of the procedure becomes more practical.”

Patel was grateful to his department for winning the Harper. “My work would not have been possible without the huge amount of intellectual freedom and support that my department has given me throughout my degree,” says Patel. “Winning the Harper is more of a reflection of my fantastic department and less so of my personal accomplishments.”

Written by Emma Macmillan