NSF Grants Adding Up

WHEN Sheldon Axler formally interviews a potential science faculty hire, he’s already noted the applicant’s postdocs, past publications and areas of research interest. And while intellectual pedigree and research curiosity are important for new professors, Axler is seeking one quality not listed on a CV.

“I’m looking for passion,” says Axler, dean of the College of Science and Engineering. “We’re not hiring people for the six years it takes to get tenure. I’m looking for people who say, ‘This isn’t a job, and I’m lucky that society is willing to pay me to do research and teach other people about it.’”

Axler’s method seems to be working. Currently, nine SF State science faculty have active CAREER grants, the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious award given annually to early-career science faculty. SF State’s nine CAREER grants account for 40 percent of all active CAREER grants in the 23-campus California State University system.

THIS YEAR, Associate Professors of Mathematics Yitwah Cheung, Federico Ardila and Associate Professor of BiologyKimberly Tanner were awarded grants totaling nearly $1.5 million that will be distributed over five years. Cheung and Ardila received two of the 22 career grants that were distributed to mathematicians in the U.S., outpacing such institutions as MIT, Stanford and UC Berkeley.

“Not only do we hire outstanding researchers, but they have to be outstanding teachers as well,” Axler says. “Faculty who are tenured at major research institutions might not get tenure here at SF State because of the teaching responsibilities.”

CAREER grant recipients are selected on the basis of creative career development plans that integrate research and education. The emphasis on teaching in addition to research at SF State has been one reason for the high number of grant recipients.

The grant awards directly aid SF State students in their scientific education. As director of the Science Education Partnership and Assessment Laboratory, Tanner will use her grant to investigate how university biology students learn to think like biologists. Cheung will develop a graduate-level mathematics course and organize workshops for students, to be hosted at SF State, and Ardila will continue teaching an upper-level mathematics course that he developed for students at SF State and Universidad de los Andes in his native Colombia.

“It’s difficult to present state-of-the-art mathematics because it requires a lot of training, so this grant will allow us to design courses and prepare our students for professional workshops,” Cheung says.

SF STATE’s other CAREER grant recipients include Diana ChuMary LeechEric HsuRahul SinghTeaster Baird Jr. and Andrew Ichimura.


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