Three UMass Dartmouth professors win top awards, $1 million for pathbreaking research

Three UMass Dartmouth professors have earned highly prestigious CAREER Awards from the National Science Foundation for work that has the potential to revolutionize their area of research while teaching students who will carry that research forward.

Three professors at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth have earned highly prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (called "CAREER") Awards from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The awards, which are among the most prestigious bestowed on young faculty in any field, invest in young assistant professors whose work has the potential to revolutionize their area of research while teaching students who will carry that research forward.

The recipients at UMass Dartmouth are: Katja Hölttä-Otto, Department of Mechanical Engineering, of Taunton; Chandra Orrill, Kaput Center, STEM Department, of Fall River; and Nima Rahbar, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, of Dartmouth.

The NSF CAREER Award grants show the breadth of excellence in UMass Dartmouth faculty, by recognizing research into changing the way math and science are taught in middle schools, using the inspiration of the natural world to create super-strong adhesives and construction materials, and helping manufacturing start-ups strike the right balance between innovation and risk.


Dr. Hölttä-Otto, a professor of machine design, is breaking new ground by helping start-up businesses strike a balance between creating a product that balances risk with innovation.

While many entrepreneurs have great ideas for a world-changing product, and many large companies have the scale to build these products in mass quantity. Her research is designed to help small manufacturers bridge the gap between an impressive prototype and finished products on store shelves.
Dr. Hölttä-Otto will use her $400,000 grant to survey hundreds of large and small companies in collaboration with the UMass Dartmouth Center for Policy Analysis, and actually define the balance between creating an innovative product and one that is too high-risk.

She has analyzed 300 products already, and there's more to do. From looking at an inverted chainsaw -- with the chain on a concave curve that makes it vastly safer than most chainsaws -- to a geared wheelchair (that can be propelled by the light touch of a finger instead of the whole arm), her grant will create a new way to help small businesses compete.

She and her team have begun partnering with three start-up manufacturers at the Advanced Technology and Manufacturing Center (ATMC) in Fall River to put her ideas into practice.

"The NSF CAREER Award is one of the most prestigious awards for junior faculty," said Robert Peck, Dean of the College of Engineering. "Dr. Hölttä-Otto is an outstanding researcher and teacher and we celebrate her achievement."

A native of Finland, Dr. Hölttä-Otto lives in Taunton.

Dr. Orrill's research project aims to explore effective mathematics teaching. She focuses on the idea that excellent math teaching requires not only a strong body of knowledge, but also the ability to connect different facets of the knowledge to each other.

Besides funding research that could lead to math education reforms, Dr. Orrill's study of effective practices will support the creation of a new course for middle school educators seeking their professional license.

"Our research will lay the groundwork for developing more effective courses and professional development opportunities for teachers,'' said Dr. Chandra Orrill, who received $270,000 to lead the study. "The better we understand how teachers understand the mathematics they teach and how that understanding impacts the experiences students have, the better we can be at creating learning opportunities."

Professor Orrill joined the UMass Dartmouth faculty in 2010 after serving nine years as a research scientist in the Learning and Performance Support Laboratory at the University of Georgia. In that time, she led and collaborated on over twenty projects focused on teachers' learning. These included professional development projects and research projects. Professor Orrill's research focuses on teacher professional development and teacher knowledge in mathematics, particularly in the upper elementary and middle grades. Much of this work has focused on fractions and multiplicative reasoning. She is also affiliated with the Kaput Center for Research and Innovation in STEM Education.

A native of Alabama, Dr. Orrill lives in Fall River.

Dr. Rahbar's grant recognizes his groundbreaking research in bio-inspired design. His $400,000 project establishes a link between toughening mechanisms in biological materials and the design of robust structural composites using mechanics models, and will train civil engineering students about natural materials and designs.

Rahbar finds professional inspiration in nature. Over his young career, he's built $3,000 mountain bikes out of bamboo (a material whose strength-to-weight ratio is higher than cement or steel) and used the cellular structure of shells to create environmentally-friendly, super-strong concrete, among other things.

Rahbar and his team will also engage local high school students, and partner with Bristol Community College and the African University of Science and Technology to stimulate student interest in engineering and build excitement for scientific research. 

"The NSF CAREER Award is one of the most prestigious awards for junior faculty" said Robert Peck, Dean of the College of Engineering. "Dr. Rahbar is an outstanding researcher and teacher and we are proud of his achievement."

A native of Iran, Dr. Rahbar lives in Dartmouth.

The NSF is an independent federal agency created "to promote the progress of science" which funds approximately 20 percent of all federally supported basic research conducted by America's colleges and universities.

NSF issues limited-term grants to fund specific research proposals that have been judged the most promising by a rigorous and objective merit-review system.

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