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NEW FACULTY STARS: Junior faculty chosen for Hellman Family Foundation awards

By Clifton B. Parker on August 29, 2008 in University News

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Young faculty stars are the focus of the newly established Hellman Fellows Program.

UC Davis informed 13 of these up-and-coming scholars Aug. 18 that they won individual grants from the Hellman Family Foundation in San Francisco. The total amounts to almost $250,000 in funding.

"These grants are for newer professors who show the capacity for great distinction in their research," said Bruce White, interim vice provost for academic personnel. "It's an extraordinary opportunity for younger faculty, many of whom can use it as a springboard to larger funding in the years ahead."

This spring, the foundation notified UC Davis it would receive $1.25 million in grant funding during the next five years. The goal is to provide support for the research of promising faculty at the assistant professor rank. At this career stage, faculty often do not have the research track record to establish themselves in the all-important grant world.

"There is less money available at this level, and many professors are competing for it," White said.

Under the guidelines, the Hellman Fellows must have completed at least two years as an assistant professor and submitted a compelling research proposal. All the foundation asks in return --- beyond adding to society's knowledge base, of course -- is that the recipients have lunch next spring with Warren and Chris Hellman, the philanthropists behind the foundation. Warren is an investment banker and UC Berkeley alumnus.

The foundation has supported similar programs at UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco and UC San Diego -- but not every university is chosen for this kind of support. What does getting Hellman funding mean for UC Davis? Above all, White said, it reflects highly on the institution's academic pedigree.

"UC Davis is in the big leagues of attracting world-class young faculty," he said. "We attribute this to the intellectual draw of the campus itself and the fact that the city of Davis is a very attractive place to live."

One benefit of the funding is that UC Davis decides how to allocate it. The university, not the foundation, chose the specific research to be supported, White explained. The Academic Senate was instrumental in establishing a review panel to sift through 48 research proposals and select recipients and how much they would receive from the Hellman Foundation. "Everybody moved efficiently to make all this possible," he noted.

And everybody on the receiving end welcomed the grants with great fanfare. The professors found out via e-mail that they had been selected as Hellman fellows.

'Through the roof'

"Receiving news of my fellowship sent me through the roof," said W. Flagg Miller, a religious studies assistant professor working on a collection of more than 1,500 audio cassettes that CNN acquired from the former residence of Osama Bin Laden in December of 2001. The tapes are currently being digitalized at Yale. "None of this material has been translated," MIller said, "since the collection was recently passed on by the (U.S.) intelligence agencies to the academic sector."

The Hellman funding makes his job "infinitely easier," Miller added, as he can now hire other Arabic speakers to help him produce quality translations and analyses.

For Cecilia Tsu, the funding comes at the ideal time -- she needs it to finish a book on Asian migration in California's Santa Clara Valley from 1880 to 1940. "This grant will definitely allow me to speed up the process of revising and publishing this book, so I am extremely grateful for this award," Tsu said.

And Colin Milburn in English said the funding is an "enormous asset" for his research on digital games. Like Tsu, Milburn said the financial award will help him put together a book.

"I'm looking at the cultural relations between new media technologies, particularly video games and the recent history of computational nanotechnology," Milburn said. "Now I'll be able to carry out some essential field work and get access to equipment and materials that otherwise would have been impossible for me."

On the science front, Soichiro Yamada in biomedical engineering said, "The last thing we want to worry about is money, which unfortunately I do too often. This award will let me focus on science and training my students to advance my research program. "

As for the lunch next spring, Yamana is up for it: "I am looking forward to meet the Hellman Family in person."

Tessa Hill, a geologist, said she will investigate climate archives from deep sea corals. Her goal? "To reconstruct how humans have impacted the waters offshore California for the past 100 to 200 years," she said.

Research winners

The winners for 2008, and the research projects and amounts funded, are:

  • W. Flagg Miller, religious studies, "Al Qaeda's Debated Origins: Evidence from Osama Bin Laden's Audiocassette Library," $16,500.
  • Colin Milburn, English, "MondoNano: Fun and Games in the World of Digital Matter," $16,000.
  • Luz Mena, women and gender studies, "To Shape a City: Free Blacks in 19th Century Havana," $12,691.
  • Julie Wyman, technocultural studies, "Strong: Expanding Notions of the Large Body and the Documentary Form," $16,000.
  • Fawz George Haj, nutrition, "Role of Protein-Tyrosine Phosphatase 1B in Diabetes," $26,000.
  • Robert Guy, mathematics, "Computational Modeling of Intracellular Flow During Amoebid Movement," $16,000.
  • Tessa Hill, geology, "The Oceanic Response to Anthropogenic Climate Change," $26,000.
  • Karen Zito, neurobiology, physiology and behavior, "Mechanisms of Dendritic Spine Elimination," $26,000.
  • Simon Chan, plant biology, "Quantitative Analysis of Centromere Structure in Arabidopsis," $16,000.
  • Cecilia Tsu, history, "Asian Migration and the Making of Race, Gender and Agriculture in the Santa Clara Valley, 1880-1940," $14,200.
  • Victoria Langland, history, "Speaking of Flowers: Student Movements and Collective Memory in Military Brazil," $11,225.
  • Lijuan Dawn Cheng, civil and environmental engineering, "Mechanism-based fiber Composite Bistable Structures and its Applications to Deficient Bridge Infrastructure," $26,000.
  • Soichiro Yamada, biomedical engineering, "The Molecular Mechanisms of Cancer Cell Adhesion," $26,000.

A call for applications for awards from the Hellman Family Foundation will be issued annually, White said.

More information:

Media contact(s)

Clifton B. Parker, Dateline, (530) 752-1932,