Inside USD

Physics Professor Earns Air Force YIR Grant

Monday, January 30, 2012

Rae Anderson’s potential as both a top professor and scientific researcher is evident by examining her educational path and work ethic that led to her current position as assistant professor of physics at the University of San Diego.

Earlier this month, though, the third-year professor received some national professional validation and recognition when the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) announced that she was one of 48 grant recipients of the Young Investigator Research (YIR) Program.

“I’m thrilled to receive this grant,” Anderson said. “When I first arrived at USD I got a Research Corporation grant, a starter grant. But this past summer, I wanted to try and establish myself and get some solid funding. I had program officers at different agencies tell me I should apply for this award.”

Open to scientists and engineers at national research institutions who received PhD, or equivalent, degrees in the last five years and show exceptional ability and promise for conducting basic research, Anderson earned a piece of approximately $18 million in AFOSR grant funding. The office received 220 proposals in major areas of interest to the Air Force, including aerospace, chemical and material sciences, physics and electronics, and mathematics, information and life sciences.

“The objective of this program is to foster creative basic research in science and engineering, enhance career development of outstanding young investigators and to increase opportunities for young investigators to recognize the Air Force mission and related challenges in science and engineering,” the AFOSR said.

Anderson’s research topic is elucidating the molecular dynamics, conformations, and interactions occurring in complex entangled biopolymer systems via novel single-molecule techniques.

“The research I’m interested in on a broader spectrum is studying the motion and interaction forces between molecules, specifically macromolecules, so essentially biological molecules — DNA, RNA and proteins,” she said. “They’re long and pretty complex. When they’re interacting with each other, it’s even more complex. I’m interested in studying how these molecules interact with each other and how they move in certain environments.”

Anderson examines molecules through special microscopes and optical tweezers. “I really enjoy developing the instrumentation and the whole technique of seeing a single molecule moving around in some environment. It’s just so cool to me.”

While her YIR grant proposal’s research is geared to one particular project, “the parameters for the numbers of studies that can be done from it are huge,” she said. “One aspect of the proposal is to develop new instrumentation. This can be used to study a lot of different molecular systems, so not only to look at motion and interactions of DNA molecules, but also to develop this instrument to study multiple systems and spark project collaborations with others.”

Anderson said she thrives on collaboration and enjoys the interdisciplinary aspects of her research projects, something that enables students from different science majors to work in her lab.

The YIR grant allows Anderson to bring a UC San Diego graduate student to her USD lab as a paid research assistant. She’s happy, too, because it gives USD undergraduate students a chance to do research with a graduate student, thus sparking their interest in graduate school.

Anderson’s research interests stem from a lifelong fascination with math and science. “Ever since I can remember, I’ve always been a math and science dork! Even before I knew what math and science was, I enjoyed doing projects. I was an experimentalist.”

Her current work in physics and her close connection with students in USD College of Arts and Sciences’ new biophysics major has been fostered by her education. Anderson has physics degrees from Georgetown University (BS); UCSD (MS, PhD) and did post-doctoral work at La Jolla’s Scripps Research Institute while teaching an introductory physics course at UCSD.

Her interest in physics research started when she sought undergraduate research experiences through her Georgetown professors. The positive experiences “sealed the deal on wanting to go to graduate school,” she said. Her graduate work focused experimentally on the biophysics of DNA through microscopy and laser techniques. Her work at Scripps was devoted to single molecule biophysics, specifically the molecule Rev, an important regulatory protein used in HIV-1 studies.

The next step was to find a place where her talents — a passion for teaching and for physics research — could thrive. She feels she’s found it at USD.

“I knew I wanted to be at a place like USD, at an undergraduate institution with a small department where I’d know all of the majors. I found that interaction to be extremely important as an undergraduate at Georgetown. I wanted to teach in a small-class environment and I wanted to work with undergraduate students in research because it was such an important experience for me. I think undergraduate students can do amazing things if you let them.”

— Ryan T. Blystone

Photo courtesy of Nick Abadilla

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