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    MARCH 31, 2005
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Chemistry’s Matsika receives NSF CAREER Award


Spiridoula Matsika, assistant professor of chemistry, has been awarded a CAREER Award by the National Science Foundation, the second to be awarded to a faculty member of the College of Science and Technology in the past two years. Vasilis Megalooikonomou, assistant professor of computer and information sciences, received the award in September 2003.

CAREER Awards, the NSF’s most prestigious award for junior faculty, support the early career-development activities of those teacher-scholars who are most likely to become the academic leaders of the 21st century. CAREER awardees are selected on the basis of creative proposals that effectively integrate research and education within the context of their organization’s mission.

The $442,899 CAREER grant will support Matsika’s research as well as her teaching over the next five years.

“This is a splendid achievement by Spiridoula Matsika, particularly given that this was her first time applying for an award of this prestige,” said Allen Nicholson, interim dean of the College of Science and Technology, who as chair of chemistry hired Matsika to Temple in 2003. “She is an example of the talented young research faculty we are attracting to the University.”

A theoretical computational chemist, Matsika’s research focuses on the excited states of molecules. Her NSF-funded project will examine what happens to DNA molecules when they absorb ultraviolet light.

“DNA absorbs UV light, and that’s related to skin cancer,” Matsika said. “I want to use my theoretical methods based on quantum mechanics to see what happens to the building blocks of DNA and RNA — the nucleobases — once they’ve absorbed the light and are in an excited state.”

She said the worst thing that can happen is that the molecules use the energy from the light and form dangerous photoproducts that damage the DNA. But if the molecules can efficiently dissipate the destructive energy, they effectively become photo-stable. Experimental studies, as well as Matsika’s own theoretical studies, show this pathway to be more probable.

“We’re trying to find out how they efficiently expend this energy,” Matsika added. “If we can understand how they do that, then we will know and understand the mechanisms that cause these molecules to be photo-stable.”

Her preliminary studies into this phenomenon, “Radiation decay of excited states of uracil through conical intersections,” were published last summer in the Journal of Physical Chemistry.

A member of Temple’s Center for Advanced Photonics Research, Matsika has been working with center director Robert Levis to create cyclic ozone on a $1.25 million grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. She is one of the researchers who are developing state-of-the-art calculations to help characterize cyclic ozone, which has never been done before.

A native of Greece, Matsika joined Temple’s chemistry faculty as an assistant professor from Johns Hopkins University, where she spent three years as a postdoctoral fellow. She earned her doctorate in chemical physics from Ohio State University in 2000.

“I really like it here at Temple,” Matsika said. “I think it’s the type of environment that’s ideal for me in academia. Everyone in the chemistry department is doing such great research, and it is a very friendly environment.”

Matsika said she also likes and identifies with the students she interacts with.

“You have a lot of students at Temple who come from working families,” she said. “It’s not taken for granted that they would go to college, they had to work hard for it and they continue to work hard when they’re here.”

Matsika, a member of the American Physical Society and the American Chemical Society, will also develop a graduate course in computational chemistry as part of the NSF award.

Vasilis Megalooikonomou, the 2003 award winner, joined Temple’s computer and information sciences faculty in 2000 from Dartmouth College, where he had been a visiting assistant professor of computer science. He previously served as a faculty research associate at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

His research interests include biomedical informatics, data mining, data compression and database systems, and he is also the founding director of Temple’s Data Engineering Laboratory.

Megalooikonomou, also a native of Greece, was awarded $401,422 for five years under the NSF CAREER Award to focus on the discovery of patterns and relations between anatomy and function through the effective and efficient analysis of large repositories of medical images and other clinical data.

“Medical centers almost everywhere today are facing an interesting challenge in analyzing the huge volumes of images and associated clinical data collected daily as part of several ongoing studies,” he said.

Megalooikonomou is investigating the use of novel data mining techniques to extract the most discriminative features in those data and use them in classification and similarity searches.

Analysis of image-based clinical trials using these techniques is expected to facilitate advances in medical diagnosis and treatment. In addition, the project will provide an excellent resource for graduate and undergraduate work in data mining, data compression, multimedia databases and other areas.

Since he has been at Temple, Megalooikonomou has developed two CIS graduate courses: “Advanced Topics in Databases-Multimedia Databases” and “Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining.”

“In his four years at Temple University, Vasilis Megalooikonomou has established excellent research in data compression, multi-sensor fusion, spatial and temporal data mining, and image processing,” said Zoran Obradovic, professor and director of Center for Information Science and Technology. “Vasilis has emerged as one of the very top junior researchers in the area of data mining. Given his knowledge and his problem-solving abilities, he is someone the Center for Information Science and Technology is proud of having as a faculty member.”

- By Preston M. Moretz