Two junior faculty from UC Santa Barbara have been selected as Sloan Research Fellows for 2019.

126 “outstanding” early-career researchers chosen across eight scientific and technical fields – chemistry, computer science, economics, mathematics, computational and evolutionary molecular biology, neuroscience, ocean sciences and physics – will receive a two-year, $70,000 fellowship to support their research.

“Sloan Research Fellows are the best young scientists working today,” Adam F. Falk, president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, said. “Sloan Fellows stand out for their creativity, for their hard work, for the importance of the issues they tackle, and the energy and innovation with which they tackle them. To be a Sloan Fellow is to be in the vanguard of twenty-first century science.”

UCSB’s Sloan Research Fellowship recipients are Thomas Sprague for neuroscience and Xin Zhou for mathematics.

Courtesy of Xin Zhou

Zhou, an assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics, joined UCSB in 2016.

His research covers geometry including differential geometry, calculus of variations and general relativity. Currently, he “plans to continue the development of min-max theory for minimal and prescribed mean curvature surfaces and for minimal surfaces with free boundary.”

Specifically, the main subject he studies is the mathematical model for soap bubbles.

“When we blow out a soap bubble, ideally the enclosed volume is unchanged, and the surface will try to minimize its area by the surface tension force,” Zhou explained. “For an ideal stationary soap bubble, the average of how the surface curves, called the ‘mean curvature’ of the surface, is everywhere a constant number.”

These surfaces are called constant mean curvature surfaces, and model a class of black hole boundaries in general relativity. Such surfaces are always round spheres in flat 3-D space, but by general relativity, the space we inhabit is curved due to the existence of matter, according to Zhou. His research aims to construct these surfaces in curved 3-D or higher dimensional spaces and to better understand their behavior under various conditions.

After learning he was selected as a Sloan Fellow, Zhou was “very glad and honored.”

“This is a very prestigious award for young researchers,” he stated. “I hope that earning this award can help draw more attention from people, especially graduate students, to my research field. I also wish that this may help enhance the reputation of our math department to attract more brilliant young scholars.”

Zhou wants to thank his department and family for “long term support of my research.”

“The recognition is most important to me, and it will be a big encouraging force for me to further explore my research field,” he said.

Courtesy of Thomas Sprague

The other Sloan Fellowship recipient, Sprague, joined the UCSB Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences in January 2019 as an assistant professor.

His work focuses on topics related to visual cognition such as attention and working memory. Because the visual system in humans comprises 30 to 40 percent of the size of the brain, it’s “really easy to access and measure” this model system through noninvasive tools like fMRI and EEG, according to Sprague.

“We can build quantitative models for how different parts of the brain should respond given visual input and see if changing the kind of task a subject is doing – such as if they need to attend to a part of the screen or hold something in mind for a brief working memory delay interval – changes responses in a way we might not expect. We use that to improve our understanding of how cognition shapes sensory perception,” he said.

Upon finding out he had received the award, Sprague felt “pretty good” and “really excited.”

“These things are very hard to predict, and you never know what one place is looking for, and so even if you’re confident in the application, or even if you aren’t confident, it feels sort of like a coin flip,” Sprague reflected. “As much as I’d like to take any credit for the success of getting the award, I was very grateful that they saw whatever they saw in me.”

He emphasizes that these awards reflect a collective work of many people, including his advisors, colleagues and students with which he works.

Sprague plans to use the funding to “get things off the ground.” It also gives him flexibility in furthering his research.

“External awards like the Sloan help me do things that I might otherwise might not have been comfortable doing given the limited resources. I anticipate moving a little bit outside of my conventional research structure…and moving more into naturalistic types of behavior [such as looking at natural images],” he said.

Sloan Research Fellows are given extensive flexibility to spend the fellowship on any expensive supportive of their research.

“What young researchers need is freedom to follow where their research leads,” Daniel L. Goroff, director of the Sloan Research Fellowship program at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, said. “Find the brightest young minds and trust them to do what they do best. That is the Sloan Research Fellowship.”


Jacqueline Wen
Jacqueline serves as the Science and Tech Editor. She enjoys watching movies and learning about science and tech.