Sharon Weiss receives NSF CAREER Award

Sharon M. Weiss, assistant professor of electrical engineering, has received a prestigious National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program Award.

She will receive $400,000 over five years to support her efforts to achieve faster and more accurate detection of biological and chemical materials by using portable porous silicon waveguides. Her work has impact in medical diagnostics, environmental monitoring and homeland security.

One of the CAREER Program’s objectives is to identify the next generation of leading researcher-educators. The NSF receives about 2,500 applications each year for the 400 CAREER grants it ultimately awards. During the past two years, seven Vanderbilt engineering professors have received CAREER Awards, putting the School of Engineering among the NSF’s top award recipients nationally.

Weiss is investigating methods to achieve more sensitive detection of biomolecules in less time by using a sensor made from porous silicon, a material with billions of tiny nanometer-sized holes (1000 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair).

“Accurate and reliable detection of biological and chemical materials is essential for improved medical diagnostics, environmental monitoring, and homeland security,” she says. “The extremely large surface area of porous silicon allows for more biomolecules to be captured. By evaluating how light interacts with the silicon, it is possible to detect the presence of trace amounts of biological material. Porous silicon sensors, made in our photonic crystals laboratory, have been used to identify specific DNA sequences and will be designed to detect various toxins and viruses in the near future.”

The NSF grant will also support Weiss’s outreach initiatives for K-12 students, including her active participation in Tennessee Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Research (TWISTER), which reaches out to high school girls by offering hands-on science sessions led by women in science and technology careers. Furthermore, the CAREER award will enable Dr. Weiss to offer additional research experiences for undergraduate students. She has already mentored numerous undergraduate researchers, including members of underrepresented groups in science and engineering.

Weiss joined the Vanderbilt faculty in 2005. In addition to her primary appointment in the School of Engineering, she has a secondary appointment as assistant professor of physics in the College of Arts and Science. She received a Ph.D. in optics in 2005, an M.S. in 2001, and a B.S. in 1999, all from the Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester. Dr. Weiss holds one patent and has two more pending. Her research interests include photonics, biosensing, optical properties of materials, and optoelectronic devices.