April 9, 2012

Two JHU engineers win Navy’s 2012 Young Investigators award

Two engineers at The Johns Hopkins University are among 26 scholars nationwide selected to share in more than $13 million in research funding through the Office of Naval Research’s Young Investigator Program.

Mounya Elhilali and Mark Foster, both assistant professors in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the Whiting School of Engineering, were chosen from a record number of applicants for the award, one of the oldest and most selective scientific research advancement programs in the country. Its purpose is to fund early-career academic researchers whose scientific pursuits show exceptional promise for supporting the Navy and Marine Corps while also promoting the scholars’ professional development.

“The Department of the Navy’s support of these outstanding research scientists is one of the ways we will maintain our technological advantage for the Navy and Marine Corps and our nation,” Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said in a statement. “The Young Investigator Program rewards these emerging leaders in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] fields.”

Elhilali and Foster were selected last month from more than 350 candidates for the monetary award, $170,000 a year for three years, for research efforts that hold promise in advancing naval technology. The winners represent 19 academic institutions across the country in disciplines ranging from nanomaterials, robotics and marine meteorology to undersea medicine, learning behaviors and psychology.

The award will fund Elhilali’s project called “Active Listening: Closing the Loop Between Sensation, Perception and Behavior,” research poised to tackle one of the major unsolved problems in neuroscience: how our brains are able to effortlessly recognize sounds.

Elhilali says that her field currently suffers a scarcity of theories that integrate the sensory circuitry in the auditory pathway with the promising capabilities of the brain, most importantly its ability to adapt to the demands of an ever-changing acoustic environment. She aims to fill that void by developing large-scale architectures for auditory object recognition that integrate sensory processing in the brain with cognitive information reflected in our prior knowledge and expectations in changing listening environments. The results could be directly applied to developing medical devices, communication aids and brain-machine systems as well as military, surveillance and security systems.

Elhilali earned her bachelor’s degree in software engineering from Al Akhawayn University in Morocco in 1998 and her doctorate in electrical and computer engineering from the University of Maryland in 2004. She was a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Systems Research at the University of Maryland from 2005 to 2007. She joined the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the Whiting School at Johns Hopkins in 2008, and in 2009, she received a National Science Foundation CAREER award.

Foster’s research focuses on developing practical photonic techniques for the manipulation of signals on the fastest of time scales from hundreds of picoseconds to a few femtoseconds. The Young Investigator award will fund research in his laboratory into transmission of high-speed analog signals over optical fibers. While fiber optics dominate high-speed digital information transfer, in numerous cases it is necessary to transmit analog signals over significant distances. Decades of device-level advancements have brought analog photonic links close to widespread applicability. Their performance, however, is not yet sufficient to supplant traditional cable signal transmission in many applications.

With this funding, Foster’s research group will investigate a fundamentally new approach to improving the performance of analog photonic links. Rather than focusing on device-level improvements, Foster’s group will exploit nonlinear optical effects in the fiber optic cable, typically considered to be detrimental distortions, to improve the quality of analog signal transmission.

Foster received his bachelor’s degree and doctorate in applied and engineering physics from Cornell University. After working as a postdoctoral fellow in the Quantum and Nonlinear Photonics Group at Cornell, he joined the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in Johns Hopkins’ Whiting School in 2010.

Office of Naval Research Young Investigators are college and university faculty who have attained tenure-track positions within the past five years. They are selected on the merit of their research and their potential contributions for game-changing advances for the Navy and Marine Corps. Many winners continue to engage in naval research beyond their award periods, and their research careers often help them earn opportunities and prominence in their respective fields. The program began in 1985, when 10 winners were awarded $50,000 per year for three years. Since then, the program has grown steadily to include a total of 579 recipients representing 120 institutions of higher education.