Three from Eberly College of Science named Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellows

Sam Sholtis and Laura Waldhier
February 15, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Three faculty members from the Eberly College of Science have been honored with Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowships, prestigious and competitive awards given to promising young researchers in the early stages of their careers, in recognition of their research accomplishments.

The new Sloan Fellows are: Cui-Zu Chang, assistant professor of physics; Rebekah Dawson, assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics; and Xin Zhang, holder of the Paul Berg Early Career Professorship and assistant professor of chemistry and assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology.

Chang, Dawson and Zhang are among 126 outstanding researchers selected from 53 colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada to receive 2018 Sloan Research Fellowships.

According to the Sloan Foundation, the fellowships, awarded yearly since 1955 to tenure-track, early-career faculty in eight scientific fields, “honor early-career scholars whose achievements mark them as among the very best scientific minds working today.”

“The groundbreaking research that Chang, Dawson and Zhang are performing is transforming their fields,” said Penn State Vice President for Research Neil Sharkey. “We are immensely proud of these new Fellows, appreciative of their hard work and secure in the knowledge that such competent scientific hands will be driving Penn State research well into the future.”

Cui-Zu Chang

Chang studies topological materials that allow electrons to move along their surface but not in their interior. He experimentally demonstrated for the first time the quantum anomalous Hall effect in a magnetically doped topological insulator film in 2013, where impurities were intentionally introduced to impart magnetism. This work was featured in the scientific background of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics honoring Duncan Haldane. The quantum anomalous Hall effect is a phenomenon where electrons in a two-dimensional plane have dissipation-free current—similar to a superconductor — that is incredibly resistant to change and is driven by internal remnant magnetism, and its realization has potential applications for reducing power consumption in future electronic and spintronic devices. Chang is also interested in interface superconductivity — the phenomenon of zero electrical resistance on the interface between two solid materials.

Chang’s academic achievements have been honored with the Young Scientist Prize from the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics in 2017, and the Dimitris N. Chorafas Foundation Award in 2013. He has published more than 50 scientific papers in journals including Science, Nature Materials, Nature Nanotechnology, Nature Physics, Nature Communications, and Physical Review Letters. Chang is a member of the American Physical Society and holds five patents in both the United States and China.

Prior to joining the faculty at Penn State, Chang was a postdoctoral associate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He earned a doctoral degree in condensed matter physics at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, in 2013 and a bachelor’s degree in optical engineering at Shandong University in Jinan, China, in 2007.

Rebekah Dawson

Dawson focuses her research on understanding how planetary systems beyond our solar system originate. She is interested in identifying the key factors that contribute to planetary formation and evolution and that lead to the wide variety of planetary orbital and compositional properties observed in extra-solar planets. She combines simulations and theory with statistics and data analysis of observed planets to test theories of the origins of planetary systems. Dawson is developing a comprehensive blueprint to help understand newly-discovered planets in the context of their system’s formation and evolution — important factors in whether the planets may harbor life.

Dawson was awarded the Annie Jump Cannon Award by the American Astronomical Society in 2017. Her previous awards and honors include the Fireman Prize from the Harvard University Department of Astronomy, the Block Award from the Aspen Center for Physics, and the American Astronomical Society’s Rodger Doxsey Travel Prize in 2013. Her research has been published in journals including Science, Nature, The Astrophysical Journal, and Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Prior to joining the faculty at Penn State, Dawson was a Miller Research Fellow at the Miller Institute for Basic Research in Science at the University of California, Berkeley from 2013 to 2015. She earned a doctoral degree in astronomy and astrophysics at Harvard University in 2013 and a bachelor’s degree in astrophysics at Wellesley College in 2009.

Xin Zhang

Zhang studies how stresses can alter the ways in which proteins fold in live cells. His laboratory develops chemical tools that allow researchers to visualize the folding states of proteins in intact live cells. His research also has application in the development of diagnoses and therapies for human diseases rooted in defective protein folding.

Zhang’s previous awards and honors include the Lloyd and Dottie Huck Early Career Award for 2015 to 2016, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Award at the Scientific Interface for 2014 to 2019, the American Chemical Society Nobel Laureate Signature Award for Graduate Education in Chemistry in 2012, and the Helen Hay Whitney Fellowship Award for 2011 to 2014. His research has been published in journals including Science, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Cell Reports, the Journal of the American Chemical Society, and Angewandet Chemie International Edition.

Prior to joining the faculty at Penn State, Zhang was a research associate at the Scripps Research Institute, California. He earned a doctoral degree at the California Institute of Technology in 2010, a master's degree at the Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2004, and a bachelor's degree at the University of Science and Technology of China in 2001.

Candidates for Sloan Research Fellowships are nominated by peer scientists and the Fellows are selected by an independent panel of senior scholars for their "research accomplishments, creativity, and potential to become a leader in his or her field." Winners receive a two-year, $65,000 fellowship to further their research.

“The Sloan Research Fellows represent the very best science has to offer,” said Sloan President Adam Falk. “The brightest minds, tackling the hardest problems, and succeeding brilliantly — Fellows are quite literally the future of 21st-century science.”

For more information about the Sloan Research Fellowships, visit

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation is a philanthropic, not-for-profit grant-making institution based in New York City. Established in 1934, the foundation makes grants in support of original research and education in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and economics.

  • Cui-Zu Chang

    Cui-Zu Chang

    IMAGE: Penn State
  • Rebekah Dawson

    Rebekah Dawson

    IMAGE: Penn State
  • Xin Zhang

    Xin Zhang

    IMAGE: Penn State
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Last Updated February 15, 2018