White House

Amy Olson

Although electrical engineering professor Guillermo Sapiro hopes his research in imaging might be used some day to diagnose breast cancer, he has no idea how the U.S. Navy is applying it because that information is classified.
Sapiro received a grant last year from the Office of Naval Research to continue his studies into reading and storing electronically produced images, which the Navy is using for its own applications.
Sapiro and fellow electrical engineering professor Rhonda Franklin Drayton found out Tuesday they will receive distinguished awards from the White House for their research. The professors were among 60 scientists and engineers who won the Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers.
In addition to the recognition by the White House, the professors will receive a total of $1 million over the next five years to help fund their research, said Mostafa Kaveh, head of the electrical engineering department.
“The awards are quite lucrative,” Kaveh said.
The award is the highest honor bestowed by the United States government to outstanding scientists at the beginning of their careers.
Drayton and Sapiro are the first professors to receive the award while at the University, said Institute of Technology Dean H. Ted Davis. A small number of awards are given each year, so it is extremely rare to have two professors at the same university win, let alone in the same department, he added.
“We’re delighted,” Davis said.
Both professors are relatively new to the University. Sapiro joined the electrical engineering department in August 1997 after working for Hewlett Packard’s research labs; Drayton came to the University last fall after working at the University of Illinois-Chicago for two years.
Drayton and Sapiro were nominated for the awards after receiving young investigator award grants from research-promoting organizations.
Drayton was nominated by the National Science Foundation after she received a grant from that organization. Sapiro was nominated by the Office of Naval Research for his grant from the Department of Defense.
Sapiro said he found out he was nominated for the award when he received a phone call two months ago to let him know the White House was doing a background check on him. Since the ceremony will be held at the White House on Feb. 10, each of the recipients and their family members had to be issued a security clearance.
He wants to develop machines to read images, like the ones produced by ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging machines. Sapiro said scientists are using magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, to study how the brain works.
If a machine could be designed to read the ultrasound images used to detect cancerous tumors or MRI images measuring brain activity, Sapiro said it could make diagnoses and research more cost effective and efficient.
Sapiro said his image-reading machines could lead to better care for patients.
“It’s exciting,” Sapiro said. “We can study humans while they are awake without cutting their brains into pieces.”
Drayton said she is working to develop a faster communication system using microwaves and photons.
She will only spend two days in Washington, D.C., she said, since she needs to return to Minneapolis to teach class that Friday.
“I’m pretty psyched,” Drayton said, because she was happy to get the grant. She added that she is delighted that her husband and her parents will accompany her to the White House ceremony.
Sapiro, who is not teaching this quarter, said he intends to spend a few days in Washington, D.C. He said he is looking forward to the award ceremony. Although President Clinton might not be there, he intends to get his picture taken with Clinton’s director of science and technology policy, Neal Lane, who will present the awards.
“You don’t get to shake hands with those big shots every day,” he said. “It’s pretty exciting.”