Sharon Weiss wins prestigious White House award


Sharon Weiss, assistant professor of electrical engineering at Vanderbilt University, has been recognized as one of the nation’s top young scientists with a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), the highest honor bestowed by the United States government on young professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers.

Weiss is one of 100 beginning researchers named today by President Obama. The recipient scientists and engineers will receive their awards at a White House ceremony this fall.

Weiss was nominated for the PECASE by the Army Research Office, Department of Defense. Nine federal departments and agencies annually nominate the most meritorious young scientists and engineers—researchers whose early accomplishments show the greatest promise for strengthening the nation’s leadership in science and technology and contributing to the awarding agencies’ missions.

Winning scientists and engineers receive up to a $1 million five-year research grant to further their study in support of critical government missions.

The Weiss group research focus includes using sensors made from porous silicon, a material with billions of tiny nanometer-sized holes (1,000 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair). The extraordinarily large internal surface area of porous silicon facilitates the capture of biomolocules. By evaluating how light interacts with the porous silicon, it is possible to detect the presence of trace amounts of biological material. Sensors made in her photonic crystals laboratory have been used to identify specific DNA sequences and will be used to detect various toxins and viruses.  More details on her group activities and research can be found at here.

“I am honored that my nanoscale biosensing research will be recognized on the national stage,” said Weiss. “I hope it helps emphasize the importance of accurate and reliable detection of biological and chemical materials that is essential for improved medical diagnostics, environmental monitoring, and homeland security.”

Weiss won a National Science Foundation CAREER award in 2008. The grant provided her with $400,000 over five years to pursue her research in porous silicon sensors for use in biosensing applications.   Weiss was also awarded a Young Investigator Program award from the Army Research Office in 2009.

“I’m thrilled that the extraordinary potential of this outstanding faculty member is being recognized by the Department of Defense and by the President of the United States,” said Kenneth F. Galloway, dean of the School of Engineering. “A PECASE and its support will have a lasting effect on Professor Weiss’ research career, and it reflects on the reputation of the School and its emphasis on exceptional research.”

Weiss joined the Vanderbilt engineering faculty in 2005. She has a secondary appointment as assistant professor of physics and she is a member of the Vanderbilt Institute of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (VINSE). She received a doctorate in optics in 2005, and master’s and bachelor’s degrees, all from the Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester. She holds one patent and has three more pending.