Junior faculty will use funds to advance studies in paleoecology and biodiversity, combinatorics and random graph theory
Two assistant professors from the Georgia Tech College of Sciences, Jenny McGuire and Lutz Warnke, have received 2020 Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Awards from the National Science Foundation (NSF).
As NSF's most prestigious award, the CAREER program supports early-career faculty who integrate excellence in education and research, serve as academic role models, and lead advances in the mission of their organization. The award comes with a federal grant for research and education activities for five consecutive years.
“Never underestimate what a National Science Foundation CAREER Award can do for a young scientist,” says Julia Kubanek, College of Sciences Associate Dean for Research. “Many of our senior faculty at Georgia Tech started their funding history as NSF CAREER awardees. They act as a springboard for faculty success in so many ways.”
Kubanek, who is also a professor in Biological Sciences and in Chemistry and Biochemistry, emphasizes the length of the grant: five years. “The funding that comes with an NSF CAREER award provides substantial support to get a faculty member’s fresh and unique research ideas off to a strong start.” The NSF also likes to see research and education combined as a way to inspire creative teaching methods that give students a more hands-on approach.
For Jenny McGuire, assistant professor in Biological Sciences and in Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, the CAREER grant will support paleoecological research exploring how plants and animals respond to environmental change and allow her to test these theories in a deep, ancient cave in Wyoming — where clues left by past environmental shifts could provide insights for current and future climate change.
For Lutz Warnke, assistant professor in Mathematics, the CAREER grant will support fundamental research at the interface of discrete mathematics and probability, exploring the fascinating properties of random networks (or graphs) and their remarkable applications in graph theory, extremal combinatorics, and other areas.
Since 2015, Jenny McGuire has spent her summers rappelling 30 feet into Wyoming’s Natural Trap Cave, digging for fossils that can provide some insight into the impact past climatic and environmental changes had on plant and animal species 20,000-30,000 years ago. McGuire’s work looks at how those changes in climate might have affected animal migration patterns.
“I was incredibly excited to get the award, because it is going to allow me to do some really exciting work,” says McGuire, who is also a past NSF Division of Environmental Biology awardee. “My project looks at the climate fidelity that different plant and animal species exhibited during past periods of climate change, so that we can characterize the extent to which they will respond to future change. By understanding how species respond to changing climate, we can identify which species and strategies to prioritize to conserve biodiversity going forward.”
Along with increasing our understanding of ecosystem and species-level responses to climate change and drought, McGuire’s spelunking expeditions and research help educate students and communities about how climate affects ecosystems.
Many of McGuire’s cave finds are brought back to Georgia Tech for what she calls Fossil Fridays, when the public is invited to help sift through the gravel and dirt to look for fossils. These “fossil discovery opportunities” reach people from across the broader Atlanta community, as well as East African undergraduate students who participate in workshops facilitated by the Conservation Paleobiology in Africa program.
“We are living in a time of rapid change,” McGuire notes. “Given the extent of the change, it is hard to predict how ecosystems are going to respond by observing snapshots of time. We use organisms' responses to past climatic and environmental changes to determine how things will play out, given the extreme changes that are anticipated.”
Lutz Warnke — who is also a recipient of the 2014 Richard-Rado-Prize, the 2016 Dénes König Prize, a 2018 Sloan Research Fellowship, and a NSF Division of Mathematical Sciences award — is fascinated by graph processes and networks, which are useful mathematical abstractions that consist of collections of points with links, or line-segments, connecting them. The more links you add, the more complex those networks become.
“Time-evolving random networks/random graph processes play an important role in several branches of mathematics and applied sciences, including statistical physics, complex networks, and extremal combinatorics,” Warnke says. “Unfortunately, for these processes, there is nowadays a widening gap between simulation-based results and theoretical understanding. I hope to develop new mathematical theory for such random graph processes, in order to better understand their properties, improve existing methods of analysis, and rigorously justify their applications.”
Warnke is using these random graph processes to attack difficult open problems in combinatorics. He explains "they provide a systematic way to give powerful probabilistic guarantees for hard-to-answer deterministic questions, such as the construction of complex graphs with unusual properties/constraints. I am particularly fascinated by the fact that the usage of randomness helps in extremal combinatorics and graph theory, and by developing new ways of analysis/new random processes I am trying to significantly increase the range of combinatorial applications."
The CAREER grant will also allow him to spend more time on the phase transition of random graphs. He explains, “This refers to a sudden change of their typical properties, as we add more and more links to the graph (similar to how the state of water changes as we increase the temperature). I am trying to understand whether the phase transition of a wide variety of random graph processes share essential ‘universal’ features, as predicted by the profound universality paradigm from physics.”
“It is a great honor to receive the NSF CAREER award,” says Warnke. “I gratefully acknowledge this recognition and support from NSF, which will now help/allow me to further advance my research program, and pursue some of the most challenging problems in probabilistic combinatorics.”