Carnegie Mellon University
March 21, 2013

Graduate Students Receive Astrid and Bruce McWilliams Fellowships

Graduate Students Receive Astrid and Bruce McWilliams Fellowships

Graduate students Yu Feng and Saumya Saurabh have been awarded the Astrid and Bruce McWilliams Fellowships in the Mellon College of Science in recognition of their outstanding creativity, dedication and commitment to carrying out leading-edge research. The fellowship provides tuition, stipend and fees for up to one year of graduate study, as well as $1,000 for conference travel or other research expenses.

Photo of Yu FengYu Feng, a fourth year Ph.D. student in the Department of Physics, works with cosmologists in CMU’s McWilliams Center for Cosmology to develop and analyze large-scale computer simulations of the universe. He has played a key role in creating the tools needed to handle the immense amount of data the center’s cosmological simulations generate. The MassiveBlack simulation, for example, models the first billion years after the Big Bang, and running the simulation generates tens of thousands of gigabytes of data. Feng developed a set of software tools to turn this data into high-resolution images. McWilliams Center cosmologists use Feng’s image-making technique in their research, and the code has been made publicly available.

“Yu is someone that can get anything done. He has off-the-charts programming and problem-solving skills,” said his thesis advisor Rupert Croft, an associate professor of physics. “His coding skill in particular has enabled him to move rapidly in a field where analysis of huge datasets is central to progress.”

Feng also delves into the data generated by the simulations to study the role that supermassive black holes play in the growth of structure in the universe. In related research projects, he is using a technique called Radiative Transfer to determine how stars and black holes have contributed to the reionization of the universe, and is looking for echoes of invisible quasars to learn more about the ionization and matter density of the universe.

Photo of Saumya SaurabhSaumya Saurabh, a fourth year Ph.D. student in the Department of Chemistry, develops fluorescent biosensors that can observe—down to a single molecule—how cell membrane proteins function. He is advancing a technology developed at CMU’s Molecular Biosensor and Imaging Center called fluorogen activating proteins (FAPs). These genetically encoded probes emit fluorescent light only when bound to an otherwise non-fluorescent small molecule called a fluorogen. Saurabh has developed FAPs that protect their bound fluorogen molecules from destruction, making the FAP-dye complex more photostable and longer-lived. As a result FAPs can be used to image cellular functions with nanoscale precision over long time scales (tens of minutes). Saurabh is using his highly photostable FAPs with a single-molecule imaging paradigm that he developed to study a membrane protein called beta2 adrenergic receptor. By developing a system of multi-colored, highly photostable biosensors to label the receptor, which interacts with other proteins in the cell signaling pathways of many tissues, including the heart, lungs and digestive tract, Saurabh will be able to track the receptor and its associated proteins in real-time to better understand its function.

“Saumya is exceptionally creative and resourceful,” said Marcel Bruchez, associate professor of biological sciences and chemistry, and Saurabh’s research advisor. “He has a great grasp of the potential applications of his findings in the lab, and the initiative to pursue them.”

Saurabh’s expertise in fluorescent probes and single molecule imaging has made him a valuable collaborator to scientists and engineers across Carnegie Mellon, including biologists, computational biologists, materials scientists and a mechanical engineer. He was recognized at the prestigious Aspen Conference on Single Molecule Biophysics, where he got a special mention for the development of fluorescent biosensors.

The Astrid and Bruce McWilliams Fellowship in the Mellon College of Science was established in 2007 by alumnus Bruce McWilliams, president and CEO of SuVolta and a Carnegie Mellon University trustee, and his wife, Astrid McWilliams, to support graduate students conducting leading-edge research in emerging fields such as nanotechnology, biophysics and cosmology.