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An exciting first year culminates with prestigious NSF grant

What would make the first year on a new job even more exciting? Being awarded a prestigious, five-year, nearly million-dollar grant from the National Science Foundation.

Assistant professor of physics Paul Whitford was recently awarded a CAREER Award by the NSF to help fund his project, “Disorder, tRNA composition and energy transduction in the ribosome.”

The CAREER Award, worth $953,963, is designed for junior faculty who, according to the NSF, “exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations.”

Whitford says he first became interested in biomolecular folding and protein function while an undergraduate student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He worked his way through as a graduate researcher at the University of California at San Diego, a postdoctoral fellowship at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and as a senior scientist and research coordinator for high performance computing at Rice University.

He joined the College of Science in 2012, focusing on theoretical condensed matter and biological physics.

One application of Whitford’s work is killing bacteria without killing the hosts; this includes targeting precise ways to hone antibiotics. In this work, Whitford analyzes data with biologists, “helping to guide their thought process.” It’s this collaboration, along with working with large-scale supercomputers, that made Northeastern attractive to him.

When talking about his research, Whitford refers to a car and how it works. “A piston fires, which fires another, and it goes on,” he says. “Microscopic machines, aren’t like that.” There are constant collisions with water and other molecules in the cell, he says, and to some extent the dynamics appear random. “Imagine a car engine being pounded with baseballs at super-fast speeds – like 2,000 miles per hour. That’s essentially what happens when these machines are operating.”

Using the assistance provided through the CAREER Award, Whitford is hopeful he will come closer to understanding the principles that enable these processes.

by Kara Matuszewski Sassone

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