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April 05, 2011

Dhiman Chakraborty and Richard King named 2011 Presidential Research Professors

Dhiman Chakraborty
Dhiman Chakraborty

Richard King
Richard King

DeKalb, Ill. — One is shedding light on the subatomic bits of matter that are the building blocks of nature, while the other is contributing to the understanding and conservation of reptiles and amphibians.

Despite such disparate fields of research, physicist Dhiman Chakraborty and biologist Richard King, the newly named 2011 Presidential Research Professors at Northern Illinois University, share much in common.

“Drs. Chakraborty and King are both premier scientists in their respective fields,” says Lisa Freeman, NIU vice president for research and graduate studies.

“Their respective contributions to the fields of particle physics and conservation biology are recognized nationally and even internationally. Their work has inspired new ways to view and study the world around us,” Freeman says. “Both Drs. Chakraborty and King involve NIU students in their research and field work. Their commitment to developing the next generation of scientists increases the impact of their work and our university.”

The Presidential Research Professorship is NIU’s top recognition for outstanding research or artistry. The award has been given out annually since 1982 in recognition and support of NIU’s research and artistic mission. Award winners receive special financial support of their research for four years, after which they carry the title of Distinguished Research Professor.

The awards will be presented during the annual Faculty Awards Ceremony and Reception beginning at 3 p.m. Thursday, April 21, in the Altgeld Hall Auditorium.

Here’s a look at this year’s award winners.

Particle path-breaker

Not many children dream of becoming particle physicists, but Dhiman Chakraborty from a young age seemed destined for the field.

Early training, guidance and inspiration from his parents helped Chakraborty win entrance into an elite high school in his native Calcutta, India. Each day, he would pass by a statue of the school’s most illustrious alumnus, Satyendra Nath Bose, the co-formulator of Bose-Einstein statistics. The category of sub-atomic particles known as bosons is named in his honor.

“I always had an interest in trying to understand the physical world, and in my high school, physics was the cool thing to do,” Chakraborty says. “Having to walk by Bose’s bust several times a day did its part as well.”

Over the past two decades, Chakraborty has helped shed light on the building blocks of our universe. He has made contributions to scientific understanding of the subatomic world, the discovery of the top quark and the pursuit of the Higgs boson — a predicted particle considered the holy grail of particle physics. Its detection would confirm the existence of the Higgs field, which is thought to permeate the universe and give particles mass.

Chakraborty first established his reputation while working as a research scientist at Fermilab’s Tevatron collider. His doctoral research made important contributions to the 1995 discovery of the top quark, the heaviest known fundamental particle. He later served as co-leader of the top-quark physics group for Fermilab’s DZero Collaboration and was an early trailblazer in use of the top quark as a search tool for other new physics, including the charged Higgs boson.

In 2001, Chakraborty brought his talents to NIU. Now he is helping to define the university’s future role in particle physics research.

“Dhiman is the leader of NIU’s efforts to expand experimental particle physics beyond Fermilab,” says Laurence Lurio, physics department chair.

In 2008, Chakraborty formed an NIU team to join the ATLAS experiment at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva, Switzerland. The LHC recently replaced Fermilab’s Tevatron as the world’s most powerful particle accelerator.

The NIU team quickly proved its worth, writing computer codes to analyze collisions and monitoring calorimeters, which measure the energy of particles. By this summer, the team will grow to include 10 NIU faculty members, research scientists and graduate students, several of whom have won highly competitive fellowships to conduct research at CERN.

Working to forge partnerships with peer institutions involved in ATLAS, Chakraborty also spent a year as a guest scientist at LPSC Grenoble, a French national laboratory. Within the United States, his NIU group works closely with counterparts at Yale, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the University of Oklahoma and Argonne National Laboratory.

Additionally, Chakraborty has led design of calorimeters and software that would be used at the proposed International Linear Collider, a next generation accelerator. He has published 340 articles in refereed journals, given invited talks at many academic and research institutions worldwide, and attracted nearly $4 million in competitive federal funding for research.

“Chakraborty has made outstanding contributions in generating new physics ideas and results, to the development of new software systems, and to novel instrumentation,” says Paul Grannis, distinguished professor emeritus at State University of New York at Stony Brook. “He has recently taken on important positions of leadership in the field. This breadth of achievement is impressive and is one of the hallmarks of a leading physicist.”

Satyendra Nath Bose would have been pleased.

‘The godfather’

At times, Richard King’s research methods can be painstaking — and outright painful.

Known as the godfather of the Lake Erie Water Snake, King has captured and studied thousands of the bad-tempered, foul-smelling serpents. As a measure of their gratitude, the very creatures that King has championed frequently sink their tiny sharp teeth into him.

A 21-year veteran professor in NIU’s Department of Biological Sciences, King is an expert on reptiles and amphibians, and more broadly on evolution, ecology and conservation biology. The Lake Erie Water Snake, found only in a cluster of islands in western Lake Erie, is among his greatest triumphs.

King first identified snake-population declines in the 1980s, and his work eventually led to the snake being listed as a “threatened species.” He and his students then helped develop and implement a recovery plan.

The effort was so successful that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service honored King and his Ph.D. student, Kristin Stanford, with the 2010 Recovery Champion Award. The agency is now proposing to remove the snake’s threatened-species status—a remarkable achievement considering that of 1,900 protected species, just 22 have been delisted following population recovery.

The story of the watersnake’s comeback has attracted widespread media coverage from the likes of NPR and Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs,” but it only begins to describe the breadth of King’s research.

Along with students and colleagues, he has published studies on the ecology and conservation of spotted salamanders, woodfrogs, spring peepers and rattlesnake. King also has shed light on population ecology, the microevolution of color patterns in reptiles, new approaches to assess the effects of invasive species and new ways to reintroduce locally extinct species.

Marcio Martins, a biologist at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, calls King “an international reference in the areas of ecology, microevolution and conservation of amphibians and reptiles.”

Adds Steven Beaupre, professor of biological sciences at the University of Arkansas, “In Dr. King, you have an outstanding citizen and teacher who developed a world-class research operation. At a time when destruction of wetlands and invasive species has forced local extinctions and listing of many amphibians and reptiles, Dr. King’s research is extremely vital and timely.”

King has an impressive and highly cited publication record. He is a frequent invited speaker at scientific meetings and has served as a reviewer for 38 scientific journals and several funding agencies, including the National Science Foundation.

His work also has attracted more than $1.25 million in funding from NSF, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies.

“It is a tribute not only to his energy and resourcefulness, but also to the high esteem with which he is held in his field that he has been so successful in this endeavor,” says NIU Distinguished Research Professor Peter Meserve.

Interwoven throughout King’s work is a strong commitment to students. He helped develop new courses for the graduate program in biological sciences and also contributed to curriculum development for NIU’s new environmental studies program.

Additionally, King has directed 10 theses and dissertations, with five more in progress. His research projects have provided real-world experiences in cutting-edge conservation practices for dozens of students.

“Interest in conservation biology is high, but opportunities for training can be scarce,” King says. “Developing a strong conservation component in my work helped expand opportunities for highly qualified and motivated student researchers. My goal is to build on the success of these projects.”

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Media Contact: Tom Parisi, NIU Media Relations & Internal Communications
Phone: 815-753-3635
Email: tparisi@niu.edu