Three U-M researchers are among the 96 recipients of the 2012 Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers, the nation’s highest honor for professionals at the outset of their independent research careers.
The PECASE awards were established in 1996. Eleven federal agencies nominate “the most meritorious scientists and engineers whose early accomplishments show the greatest promise for assuring America’s pre-eminence in science and engineering and contributing to the awarding agencies’ missions,” according to a White House news release.
“Discoveries in science and technology not only strengthen our economy, they inspire us as a people,” President Barack Obama said in the news release. “The impressive accomplishments of today’s awardees so early in their careers promise even greater advances in the years ahead.”
This year’s U-M winners are:
• Dental researcher Margherita Fontana, associate professor of cariology, restorative sciences and endodontics at the School of Dentistry.
• Mental health researcher Amy Kilbourne, associate professor of psychiatry at the Medical School.
• Structural biologist Georgios Skiniotis, a research assistant professor at the Life Sciences Institute and assistant professor of biological chemistry at the Medical School.
A fourth 2012 winner, evolutionary ecologist Meghan Duffy of the Georgia Institute of Technology, will join the U-M faculty this month in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. She was nominated by the National Science Foundation.
Fontana, who was nominated by the National Institutes of Health, was honored “for studies on the ability to predict caries risk for underserved toddlers in primary health care settings.”
Her research addresses inequities in tooth decay and cavities, formally known as dental caries, among preschool-aged U.S. children. The work was inspired by the shift and increase in tooth decay among certain populations, especially from underserved and minority populations. Tooth decay, the most common chronic disease of childhood, is a largely preventable disease.
Fontana is developing a tool that can be used in primary medical health care settings to identify children ages 1-4 with the highest risk of dental caries. The long-term goal is to reduce disparities in tooth decay and cavities in young children by developing preventative and therapeutic strategies that can be delivered through new models for oral health care, including in the primary care setting.
During Fontana’s study, researchers will ask parents of 1,326 infants to complete a caries risk questionnaire and will perform three dental examinations on the children to see how well the risk tool predicts caries risk as the child ages. A critical aspect of the project is that it is multisite and interprofessional, involving dentists, physicians, survey specialists and biostatisticians.
In addition to her Medical School appointment, Kilbourne serves as associate director of the VA Ann Arbor National Serious Mental Illness Treatment Resource and Evaluation Center, part of the Center for Clinical Management Research at the Veterans Affairs Ann Arbor Healthcare System.
Kilbourne is a core faculty member of the U-M Comprehensive Depression Center, where she received the Director’s Innovation Award in 2010. She also is a member of the new U-M Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation.
Kilbourne’s research focuses on improving medical and psychiatric outcomes for persons with mood disorders through integrated care models. To that end, she has proposed and implemented novel psychosocial interventions for bipolar disorder that combine best practices in care management and behavioral medicine. Her research also focuses on measuring and improving quality of care, dissemination and implementation of behavioral health treatment models.
Skiniotis, who was nominated by the National Institutes of Health, was honored “for studies on the structure and function of signaling cell-surface receptors.”
He uses high-resolution electron microscopes to examine the architecture of proteins, to figure out how they interact with other cellular components and ultimately to understand how they function. His studies facilitate the development of novel treatments for diseases like cancer, heart disease and neurodegenerative disease.
“The invention of all sorts of microscopes, turned to the skies or to the cells that make up life on Earth, has radically changed our understanding of the world and of ourselves,” Skiniotis said. “The electron microscopes we use at the Life Sciences Institute allow us to directly visualize how cellular machines form and work — knowledge that can be used in all kinds of ways to improve human health.”
PECASE winners receive funding extensions from the nominating agency.
The awardees were selected “for their pursuit of innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology, and their commitment to community service as demonstrated through scientific leadership, public education or community outreach,” according to the White House news release.
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