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Two NYU faculty win Sloan Foundation research fellowships

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Two New York University faculty have been awarded fellowships from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation: Marc Gershow, an assistant professor in NYU's Department of Physics, and Katherine Nagel, an assistant professor of neuroscience and physiology at NYU Langone Medical Center and its Neuroscience Institute.

The fellowships are given to early-career scientists and scholars "whose achievements and potential identify them as rising stars–the next generation of scientific leaders," the Sloan Foundation said in announcing this year's fellows.

"Getting early-career support can be a make-or-break moment for a young scholar," said Paul L. Joskow, president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. "In an increasingly competitive academic environment, it can be difficult to stand out, even when your work is first rate. The Sloan Research Fellowships have become an unmistakable marker of quality among researchers. Fellows represent the best-of-the-best among young scientists."

Gershow applies methods from physics, engineering, and computer vision to learn how the brain processes information and makes decisions. His laboratory studies fruit fly larvae, genetic model organisms with relatively simple brains. Recently developed tools allow the use of light microscopy to activate, suppress, and read out the activities of single nerve cells throughout the brain. Because larvae are clear, Gershow can use these tools in freely behaving larvae, both "reading" and "controlling" their minds as they investigate their olfactory environments. By studying how interconnected neurons respond to odor and control behavior, his research team can begin to address broader questions, such as: How do brains make decisions based on noisy and often conflicting sensory input? and Why does the same input elicit variable behaviors, even in the simplest organisms?

Nagel's work aims to understand how the biophysical properties of cells and synapses shape the behavior of organisms in complex environments. In her research on adult fruit flies, Nagel and her colleagues examine how flies combine cues from different sensory systems to move toward an odor source–navigation that requires neurons to integrate smell, wind, and visual cues. In doing so, the research can explore a range of queries: How do wind-guided turns depend on the history of odor encounters? How do local behavioral algorithms depend on global statistical properties of odor and wind fluctuations? Which neurons integrate odor information with wind and visual cues? How does integration of sensory cues in individual neurons compare to behavioral integration of sensory cues by whole flies?

Since the beginning of the program in 1955, 43 fellows have received a Nobel Prize in their respective fields, 16 have won the Fields Medal in mathematics, 68 have received the National Medal of Science, and 15 have won the John Bates Clark Medal in economics, including every winner since 2007.

Fellows receive $55,000, over a two-year period, to further their research.

Awarded in eight scientific and technical fields–chemistry, computer science, economics, mathematics, computational and evolutionary molecular biology, neuroscience, ocean sciences, and physics–the Sloan Research Fellowships are awarded in close coordination with the scientific community. Candidates must be nominated by their fellow scientists and winning fellows are selected by an independent panel of senior scholars on the basis of a candidate's independent research accomplishments, creativity, and potential to become a leader in his or her field.

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