Zheng, Foster named Sloan fellows

Prestigious award recognizes young American, Canadian scientists 

Two Rice University professors are among 126 American and Canadian scholars awarded 2014 Sloan Research Fellowships.

Junrong Zheng

Junrong Zheng

Junrong Zheng, an assistant professor of chemistry, and Matthew Foster, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy, won the fellowships presented to early career scientists and scholars whose achievements and potential mark them as rising stars, according to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

The fellowships, presented annually since 1955, include a two-year $50,000 grant.

Zheng and his Rice students and colleagues have developed a spectrometer that measures vibrations between atoms to determine the three-dimensional conformations of molecules and how they move and change. The information will help scientists understand basic phenomena like heat transfer, cell signaling and other biomolecular processes, batteries, catalysts, nanophotonics and the chemical dynamics of energetic materials.

“Many famous scientists have won this award,” Zheng said. “That’s pretty cool and I feel lucky that I can be among them. It will be helpful as I continue to develop my technique to be more general for researchers in other fields.”

Foster is a theoretical physicist who studies the effects of disorder and interactions in condensed matter systems, particularly for low-dimensional materials like graphene, topological insulators and superconductors.

Matthew Foster

Matthew Foster

“We have shown how to realize a fermionic topological superfluid by driving an atomic gas far from equilibrium,” he said. “This is a novel and potentially useful idea because these states are difficult to stabilize in equilibrium, owing to parasitic effects.”

Foster’s group has also investigated realistic models of topological superconductor surface states and shown that the interplay of disorder and interactions can sabotage topological protection. “We were able to do this using mathematics developed in string theory,” he said.

The Sloan Fellowship, he said, is “a validation of our doing work where we’re a bit ahead of experiment. We’re trying to take ideas that are out there and propose new systems and ask, What would they look like? What is the physics like?”

Sloan fellows work in chemistry, computer science, economics, mathematics, evolutionary and computational molecular biology, neuroscience, ocean sciences and physics. According to the foundation, 42 fellows have received a Nobel Prize in their respective fields, 16 have won the Fields Medal in mathematics, 13 have won the John Bates Clark Medal in economics and 63 have received the National Medal of Science since the program was founded.

The complete list of winners appears at www.sloan.org/sloan-research-fellowships/2014-sloan-research-fellows.


About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.