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onCampus--Ohio State's faculty/staff news

Vol. 38, No. 18

By: Pam Frost Gorder

Researchers score Sloan Fellowships

An Ohio State mathematician and astronomer are among researchers recently honored with prestigious fellowships from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Chiu-Yen Kao, assistant professor of mathematics, and Todd Thompson, assistant professor of astronomy, were among the 118 outstanding early career scientists, mathematicians and economists chosen by the foundation to receive two-year, $50,000 grants.

Kao specializes in applied mathematics, including numerical methods for solving partial differential equations, and mathematical biology. For instance, she is developing new methods for processing medical images of the brain and eye.

She also devises algorithms that provide guidelines for designing materials with specific properties — for example, photonic crystals, which prohibit the propogation of light, and solar cells, which convert light to electricity. Solar cells are typically made from expensive semiconductors, and Kao is collaborating with engineers to develop polymers to do the job.

 “We are working on a new mathematical model for a design that would be cheaper and more efficient,” she said.

Thompson is a theorist who is puzzling out the origins of the universe’s most dramatic events.

When a massive, rapidly rotating star explodes in a supernova, its strong magnetic field can accelerate matter to nearly the speed of light — in a “jet” that flows out of the star’s north and south poles, creating conditions ideally suited for producing a bright burst of gamma-rays. These gamma-ray bursts are observed from across the universe.

Though astronomers have studied supernovae for centuries, mysteries still remain. “We don’t actually know how the explosion is launched, or how it leads to a gamma-ray burst,” Thompson said. A special kind of rapidly rotating neutron star may be the source.

He also studies starburst galaxies, which create hundreds to thousands of times more stars per year than our own galaxy. He suspects that the supermassive black holes at the centers of these galaxies may halt star formation by driving the dusty gas into intergalactic space.

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