Villanova Scholars on the Ascent

The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Awards are the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious grants for junior faculty. Selected recipients embody the role of teacher-scholars as outstanding researchers and excellent educators who integrate education and research within the context of their institutions’ missions.

Nine Villanova professors have received NSF CAREER awards since 2017. The grants provide significant funding for five-year scholarly projects that are designed to build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in education and research. Villanova’s CAREER grant recipients are undertaking projects that have great potential to break new ground in their disciplines, and are doing so while also serving as role models for the STEM professionals of tomorrow—our students.

VIllanova celebrates these remarkable teacher-scholars, and we are proud that they are carrying out this vital work as members of our community. Not only are they earning widespread acclaim for their dedication to scholarship and innovation in their field, but they are also furthering the University and our commitment to the Augustinian Catholic intellectual tradition.

Scott Dietrich, PhD

Assistant Professor of Physics

Area of expertise: Nanoelectronics
NSF CAREER Project title: “Microwave Transmission Spectroscopy of Van Der Walls Materials”

“We often consider electricity as flowing like water in a pipe, but this analogy breaks down when electrons interact strongly. This so-called ‘collective behavior’ of electrons in a material often leads to exciting new electronic properties. This project uses microwave radiation to characterize these electronic phases. By understanding the collective behavior, new technology can be developed around it.”


Jacob Elmer, PhD

Associate Professor and Dicciani Endowed Professor of Chemical Engineering

Area of expertise: Gene Therapy
NSF CAREER project title: “Manipulating the Innate Immune Response to Improve Gene Therapy”

“The goal of this project is to improve gene therapy by identifying and modifying the genes involved in the immune response to foreign DNA in several cancer cell lines. Such an approach is expected to enhance gene delivery by inhibiting the target genes with both small molecule inhibitors and inhibitor proteins.”


Janette Herbers, PhD

Associate Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences

Area of expertise: Homelessness and Poverty
NSF CAREER project title: “Supporting Healthy Development of Infants in Contexts of Poverty and Homelessness”

“This project will investigate developmental processes of risk and resilience among infants whose families are homeless and have very low income. The project will contribute to the limited knowledge of the well-being of homeless infants. Infants are overrepresented among children experiencing homelessness but underrepresented in the research literature.”


Chengyu Li, PhD

Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering

Area of expertise: Fluid Dynamics
NSF CAREER project title: “Odor-Guided Flapping Flight: Novel Fluid Dynamic Mechanisms of Insect Navigation”

“Insects rely on odor-guided flapping flight to mate and hunt for prey. ... Understanding how insects achieve the balance between aerodynamic performance and olfactory sensitivity is the stepping stone towards transforming this feat in engineering solutions for the navigation of miniature aerial vehicles in GPS-denied environments, with important applications for search in natural disasters, chemical leaking monitoring and drug-trafficking detection.”


Megan Povelones, PhD

Assistant Professor of Biology

Area of expertise: Mitochondrial Structure and Function
NSF CAREER project title: “Defining Novel Pathways for Mitochondrial Dynamics in an Early-Diverging Eukaryote”

“The shape of sub-cellular structures such as mitochondria is precisely tuned to their function, and can be readily adapted to suit different environmental conditions. Using single-celled parasites as a model system, these studies will provide insights into organelle structure- function relationships and the evolution of cellular organization.”


Kristin Sample-Lord, PhD

Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Area of expertise: Geotechnical and Geoenvironmental Engineering 
NSF CAREER project title: “Coupled Phenomena Resilience and Dynamics in Bentonite Barriers”

“The research focuses on transforming how we measure, predict and educate others about the long-term performance of clay barriers used for environmental protection. ... The results will improve prediction and modeling of how contaminants escape through clay barriers over time, supporting design of resilient barrier systems and improved protection of public health and the environment.”


Troy Shirangi, PhD

Associate Professor of Biology

Area of expertise: Role of Genes in Instinctive Behaviors
NSF CAREER project title: “How the Dissatisfaction Nuclear Receptor Regulates Drosophila Courtship Behavior”

“The formation of a nervous system capable of integrating outside inputs, making decisions and coordinating motor outputs is critical for a healthy life. To uncover basic principles that guide this process, this project investigates how a developmental gene in fruit flies controls their reproductive behaviors and nervous system development.”


Joseph Toscano, PhD

Associate Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences

Area of expertise: Speech Recognition
NSF CAREER project title: “Integrating Information Across Levels of Processing During Real-Time Spoken Language Comprehension”

“Language comprehension is central to successful communication. ... This project will investigate how people understand spoken language in different contexts by studying brain responses to speech and developing computer models that recognize spoken words in context. The aim is to understand the ways that human listeners successfully communicate in a noisy world.”


Wenqing Xu, PhD

Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Area of expertise: Environmental Interfacial Chemistry
NSF CAREER project title: “Transforming the Synergistic Interactions Between Pyrogenic Carbonaceous Matter and Sulfur Species Into Solutions for Contaminant Detoxification”

“Many halogenated pollutants are toxic and enter the environment as pesticides, surfactants and industrial chemicals. These toxic pollutants are often found in sediment where pyrogenic carbonaceous matter (PCM) and sulfide naturally coexist. My group aims to employ polymer chemistry and advanced surface characterization techniques to understand how the interaction between PCM and sulfide degrades these halogenated pollutants. The ultimate goal is to apply these naturally occurring reactions to produce engineering solutions that will effectively detoxify pollutants.”