Two young Pittsburgh-region professors get national science award

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Two of the region’s university professors will receive the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, one for her work in computer engineering for boat design, and the other for his focus on new, abundant and cleaner sources of energy.

Yongjie (Jessica) Zhang, a Carnegie Mellon University associate professor of mechanical engineering, and West Virginia University chemical engineer Brian J. Anderson will join 100 other younger scientists nationwide as recipients of the award, which President Barack Obama will present to them in a yet-to-be scheduled ceremony at the White House.

The award represents “the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. Government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers,” a White House news release states.

Established by President Bill Clinton in 1996, the award accentuates Mr. Obama’s stated focus on producing “outstanding scientists and engineers to advance the nation’s goals, tackle grand challenges and contribute to the American economy.”

Recipients are researchers employed by, or receiving funding from, the federal government for projects of national interest. Ms. Zhang has received funding through the U.S. Department of Defense while Mr. Anderson is involved with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory and its Regional University Alliance comprising WVU, CMU, University of Pittsburgh, and Virginia Tech and Penn State universities.

Ms. Zhang, 40, a recipient of other notable awards, holds a doctoral degree from the University of Texas in Austin with more than 100 co-authored publications in peer-reviewed international journals and conference proceedings.

Her research involves optimizing ship design with computer algorithms that focus on geometry, mechanics and materials used in ship construction. “There are many parameters that you can optimize,” she said.

Allen Robinson, who heads CMU’s department of mechanical engineering, said she’s already “a star” as a young faculty member.

“Essentially, she develops algorithms to allow computers to better represent or visualize physical objects such as a ship, a heart, etc.,” he said. The Navy has interest in her technology to improve ship design, leading to the award, he said. Her technology, however, has more expansive applications.

“Any problem that an engineer would use a computer to try to solve would benefit from Jessica’s technology,” he said.

A native of Ripley, W.Va., Mr. Anderson, 35, received his doctoral degree in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before returning to his alma mater, WVU, to teach and do research in energy. “I see in the world a number of big problems we’re facing, including social-political instability and ensuring energy supply and clean water,” he said.

For the last century, the United States benefitted from cheap, plentiful energy, but supplying the growing demand in China, India and other nations presents a future challenge.

One focus of his is injection of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into gas hydrates — methane-rich solids deep under the ocean floor and Alaskan permafrost, among many sites worldwide. The carbon dioxide replaces and releases the methane for use as energy while being sequestered to prevent climate change.

“Dr. Anderson is an exceptional researcher,” says Scott Klara, NETL acting director. “His commitment to energy security, leadership in scientific matters, and dedication to excellence in education put him among the top energy professionals in the country.”

David Templeton: or 412-263-1578.

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