Promising Start for USC College Profs

Recognized for their potential, two assistant professors receive Early Career awards from the National Science Foundation.
By Luisa Montes
Bichemist Peter Qin narrowed his studies to physics during his undergraduate years at Peking University.

Photo/Luisa Montes
USC College professors Thorsten Becker and Peter Qin have received an Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from the National Science Foundation.

The award honors academics near the start of their careers. Winning it puts Becker, an assistant professor of earth sciences, and Qin, an assistant professor of chemistry and biological sciences, in the company of an elite group of USC faculty recognized early on as having great potential in their fields.

The grant money will allow Becker and Qin to continue their research and, in turn, make significant contributions to the scientific community. The award provides new researchers with funding that might have been otherwise difficult to obtain at this stage in their careers.

The highly regarded NSF award comes with very little ceremony. “I just got an e-mail and an official letter,” said Becker, who learned of the award early this year. “It was all very low-key.”

Becker’s initial steps into science came when he studied physics at Frankfurt University in his native Germany. By the time he began thinking about his thesis, he found that his interests had shifted, and Becker chose to enter the realm of geophysics.

“It was really the field work that interested me,” Becker said of the research and experiments carried out in the mountains. “It combined my love of the outdoors with physics.”

Ironically, Becker now spends much of his time indoors developing ever-more sophisticated computer models of convection-driven movements below the planet’s surface.

With the NSF award, Becker plans to delve deeper into his ongoing modeling studies of plate tectonics and the composition and dynamics of the Earth, including the formation of mountains and earthquakes.

His fellow honoree, biochemist Peter Qin, always had a love of science, but he narrowed his studies to physics during his undergraduate years at Peking University in China. Qin went on to earn his doctorate from Columbia University, where his desire to “understand physical principles of how biochemistry works” led him to his current field.

Qin will use the NSF grant, which he received last fall, to continue his studies of the structure and function of nucleic acids DNA and RNA molecules that play vital roles in the maintenance and expression of genetic information. In the world of biomolecules, physical composition and three-dimensional conformation dictate function. But information about the shapes of certain nucleic acid molecules has been difficult to obtain using conventional technology.

Qin is employing a new technique called site-directed spin labeling (SDSL), which uses a small reporter molecule to reveal more about key RNA and DNA molecules.

In their first project, Qin and his team will focus on a so-called packaging RNA molecule that serves as an essential component of a powerful biomolecular motor. They will use the SDSL technique to measure distances between specific positions within the packaging RNA molecule. The data help reveal the shape of the molecule.

“Because the molecule’s shape dictates its function, we are looking for structural information to help us understand function. Monitoring the behavior of the SDSL reporter molecule gives us an idea of the environment at specific sites. This leads to a understanding of structure,” Qin explained.

The two-fold benefits of the NSF award are widely recognized. On the one hand, the grant provides young scientists with the resources to create strong research programs. On a broader level, the program, which must include an education component, benefits the university.

As part of the award, Becker is developing a new course on numerical methods in earth sciences as well as two new software modules that will be used in courses with graduate and undergraduate students. The software will allow students to learn more about the geophysics of the Earth’s mantle, explore how these dynamics affect plate tectonics and develop valuable quantitative skills.

Qin will create “Genes, Life and Society,” a new general education course that will explore genes, nucleic acids and issues of evolution and diversity.

The class will take advantage of the multimedia teaching platform, BioSIGHT, created by biologist and information scientist Wee Ling Wong and colleagues at the USC Integrated Media Systems Center, a NSF Engineering Research Center at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. BioSIGHT provides high-quality interactive visualization and simulation software such as the “virtual microscope” for science classrooms.

USC College faculty who have won NSF Career awards in recent years include molecular biologist Steven Finkel, mathematician Ko Honda and mathematician Sergey Lototsky, among many others.