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Four GMU Researchers Receive NSF Career Awards

Tuesday, July 16, 2019  
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George Mason University’s burgeoning reputation as a top-tier research institution received a significant boost with news that four faculty members have been honored with a prestigious award from the National Science Foundation.

Natalie Burls, Thomas LaToza, Patrick Vora and Jonathan Bell were recognized with Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) awards that support junior faculty “who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization,” according to the NSF website. The awards come with a federal grant for research and education activities for five consecutive years.

“NSF CAREER awards are the most distinguished awards junior faculty members can receive and reflect the world-class caliber of our faculty,” said Deborah Crawford, Mason’s vice president for research, innovation and economic impact. “That Mason received four such awards this year is testimony to our Research 1 status.”

Natalie Burls, an assistant professor in the Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Earth Sciences within Mason’s College of Science, received a grant to study how much the temperature of our planet will increase due to high atmospheric CO2 concentrations. She and her research team are using climate models and climate data from past warm periods in Earth’s history to better gauge how tropical climates respond to warming.

Burls is working closely with geology graduate students through summer research visits and on the development of a website for students and researchers from across the country. She is also mentoring local undergraduates and high school students through Mason’s Aspiring Scientists Summer Internship Program (ASSIP) and presenting a “weather and climate” module for Mason’s FOCUS summer camp, a STEM-focused camp for middle-school girls.

Thomas LaToza, an assistant professor of computer science within the Volgenau School of Engineering, received the grant for his research proposal on debugging software problems. He’ll be examining techniques that engineers use to resolve problems when software fails to work correctly and designing new debugging tools that could help developers work more effectively.

Patrick Vora, an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy within the College of Science and the director of Mason’s Quantum Materials Center, received the grant for his work creating technologies that will enable unbreakable encryption protected by the laws of quantum mechanics.

Quantum mechanics, which describes nature at the smallest scales of energy levels of atoms and subatomic particles, will play a critical role in the near future in how we compute, communicate and sense our world. There will be much improved computing technology, but new security risks as well, as quantum computers can easily break conventional encryption schemes. Vora hopes to alleviate those fears through the use of entangled photon technology.

Jonathan Bell, an assistant professor of computer science within the Volgenau School of Engineering, is doing research to fight against cyber attacks such as the breach that befell Equifax in 2017.

Bell and his research team are creating tools that developers can use to protect software from a dangerous vulnerability called code injection, in which an attacker can run their code on a secure server. Code injection vulnerabilities have become increasingly common, Bell said.

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