Columbia University is proud to announce that three of our esteemed junior researchers have been named among the 2019 class of Sloan Research Fellows. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation announced the 126 recipients from across the United States and Canada this week, including Andres Bendesky, assistant professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology (E3B); and Melissa Ness and Lorenzo Sironi, both assistant professors in the Department of Astronomy.
Awarded annually since 1955, the honor of Sloan Fellow and its associated research support are bestowed on early-career scholars whose achievements mark them as among the most promising researchers in their fields.
“Sloan Research Fellows are the best young scientists working today,” said Adam F. Falk, president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. “Sloan Fellows stand out for their creativity, for their hard work, for the importance of the issues they tackle, and the energy and innovation with which they tackle them. To be a Sloan Fellow is to be in the vanguard of twenty-first-century science.”
Bendesky’s research takes advantage of new genetic, molecular, and neuroscientific tools to develop a better understanding of how genes regulate diverse animal and human behaviors, such as parental care, the exploration of the environment, and aggression.
Among other projects, his current work includes comparing monogamous to promiscuous species of Peromyscus mice to understand neuronal mechanisms of parental behavior, for example why, in mammals, monogamous males demonstrate more paternal behavior than promiscuous males. His lab is examining the areas of the brain that differ in activity between monogamous and promiscuous mice to identify the differences in circuit connectivity, neuronal composition, and in protein sequences and levels of gene expression. A second current project involves identifying the mechanisms by which animals evolve different exploration strategies. Exploration is a fundamental yet poorly understood behavior, so Bendesky found two Peromyscus mouse species that have vastly different exploratory behaviors and mapped the responsible genetic regions. A third project is underway to understand the genetic and neuronal mechanisms of high aggression in Siamese Fighting. The work will provide fresh biological insights into a behavior that is widespread in nature, that strongly impacts human interactions, and that is often exaggerated in psychiatric disease.
“My research occupies a niche at the intersection of genetics and neuroscience, uses the latest technologies, develops new experimental and analytical tools, and leverages natural variation in behavior in multiple vertebrates to uncover fundamental principles of the evolution of behavior and function of the brain, with an emphasis on behaviors that are significant in nature and of great relevance to humans,” Bendesky explained.
Once an engineer and now an emerging star in astrophysical research, Ness, who also holds a research position at the Flatiron Institute, in the Centre for Computational Astrophysics, has authored several impactful computational tools designed to unleash the full power of the largest astronomical data sets. Her ultimate goal is to answer fundamental questions about the formation and evolutionary history of our home Galaxy, the Milky Way.
Ness uses stars as tools to understand the formation and evolution history of the Milky Way in the regime of large data. Her research draws on large datasets, including GALAH, APOGEE, Kepler and Gaia, to understand the relationship between the ages, chemical abundances and orbital properties of stars across the Milky Way disk and “bulge.” She also works on developing efficient methodologies to extract and interpret information from data.
“We are now in a regime in astronomy where the huge volumes of spectroscopic, photometric and time-domain data call for new and cross-disciplinary analysis approaches,” Ness said. “This affords a tremendous opportunity for exploration and creativity.”
Ness is recognized for several leading discoveries, all of which contribute to our understanding of how the very central region of our Galaxy, the “bulge,” formed. She has also made new methodological advances in how quantities which link to the chemical abundances, the material from which stars are born, are derived from stellar spectra, and she has delivered new high precision chemical abundance measurements for millions of stars from a multitude of different stellar surveys. She next plans to identify the relationship between the detailed chemical abundances of stars (their birth environment) and their orbits (how they move today).
“Professor Ness has shown unique talent and inventiveness in choosing not only what to explore in a data set, but also how to explore it,” said David Schiminovich, the chair of the astronomy department. “She is highly valued for the depth of her understanding of the chemical signatures in astrophysical spectra of stars (“stellar fingerprints”), along with her knowledge of how to apply her powerful tools towards new research challenges. Her groundbreaking work is playing a critical role as she and other astronomers gain new insights from in the largest-ever census of the Galaxy. Additionally, Prof. Ness and her group are moving the field in uncharted directions — into the outer reaches of the Milky Way, and towards chemical elements rarely considered by astrophysical minds.”
Still early in his career, Sironi began teaching at Columbia in 2016 and is already a world-recognized theorist, known for advancing scientific understanding of the birth and death of magnetic fields in the Universe and how those magnetic fields power and shape energetic and explosive astrophysical processes. Sironi is a leader in computational astrophysics, actively driving efforts to develop complex simulation codes that combine Einstein’s general relativity on large scales with the small-scale physics of electrically conducting fluids moving through magnetic fields. These new insights have allowed him to create unprecedented, realistic models of astrophysical jets of matter and energy — which are ubiquitous in nature — and in the process he has solved several long-standing problems in the field.
Among his discoveries, Sironi has demonstrated the importance of a process known as explosive magnetic “reconnection” as the principal source of energy powering high-energy emission in a diverse array of fast-moving astrophysical sources as they encounter some of the densest and most exotic environments in the Universe. His work is highly relevant to multi-wavelength and gravitational wave observational studies of merging black holes and neutron stars.
“Professor Sironi’s large-scale numerical simulations of the fundamental physics underlying astrophysical phenomena have inspired graduate students and undergraduates to seek him out as a teacher and advisor,” Schiminovich said. “His ambitious research goals now include identifying the origin of magnetic fields and tracing their history and fate across cosmic time and over a stunning range of physical scales. A few years ago, such an undertaking would have been considered beyond reach.
Since the first Sloan Research Fellowships were awarded more than 60 years ago, 166 faculty from Columbia University have received a Sloan Research Fellowship. Valued not only for their prestige, Sloan Research Fellowships are a highly flexible source of research support – winners receive a two-year, $70,000 fellowship to advance their research.
“What young researchers need is freedom to follow where their research leads,” said Daniel L. Goroff, director of the Sloan Research Fellowship program. “Find the brightest young minds and trust them to do what they do best. That is the Sloan Research Fellowship.” Drawn this year from 57 colleges and universities, the newest class of Sloan Research Fellows represents a diverse array of research interests across eight scientific and technical fields – chemistry, computer science, economics, mathematics, computational and evolutionary molecular biology, neuroscience, ocean sciences, and physics.
Past Sloan Research Fellows include many towering figures in the history of science, including physicists Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann, and game theorist John Nash. Forty-seven fellows have received a Nobel Prize in their respective field, 17 have won the Fields Medal in mathematics, 69 have received the National Medal of Science, and 18 have won the John Bates Clark Medal in economics, including every winner since 2007. See the database of former Sloan Research Fellows and a full list of the 2019 Sloan Research Fellows.