Published: June 8, 2023 By

The National Science Foundation’s CAREER award is among the most prestigious honors supporting junior faculty doing outstanding work integrating research and education toward a meaningful social impact. The CAREER award is highly competitive and is a strong indicator of future research success.National Science Foundation logo

Award criteria focus on intellectual merit and broad impact—the NSF awards academic role models who have a plan to explore a body of significant research in their field. This balance of the desire to educate students within a pursuit of deep inquiry toward a purposeful goal is the signature of CAREER award winners.

At ATLAS Institute, we are proud to have had five faculty members who have received CAREER awards out of the nine so far who have been eligible. This remarkable achievement speaks to the nature of our research community as one that empowers creative engineers to bring their full selves to their work.

CAREER award winners' portraits

ATLAS Director Mark D Gross explains faculty hiring: “Rather than saying, ‘We specifically want to hire a brain scientist,’ we say, ‘We just want to hire a really brilliant person.’ We seek applicants who are interesting to us and who are going to do great work. We believe in them.”

The power of the research

The University of Colorado Boulder is one of only 35 U.S. public research institutions in the Association of American Universities (AAU), a group widely recognized as America’s leading research universities. This emphasis on research undergirds everything we do at CU-Boulder overall and at ATLAS specifically. 

ATLAS Institute is housed under the Research & Innovation Office at CU-Boulder, with degree programs in the College of Engineering and Applied Science (CEAS), itself a heavily decorated and high-ranked college. ATLAS contributes to the research rigor CEAS is known for while pushing the community’s perception of where serious inquiry can spring from. 

For example, recent CAREER recipient and ATLAS assistant professor of mechanical engineering, Carson Bruns, studies new ways to apply nanotechnology for improving human health—but through the lens of “smart” tattoos that can change color with UV light exposure or temperature increases. This melding of disparate lines of interest—nanoparticles, smart technology, human health and body art—seeds unique, useful discoveries traditional methods might otherwise overlook.


So what is it exactly about ATLAS that attracts such talent? Gross says, “Those who know what we're doing tell us we have a really interesting group of people, we’re unlike a traditional department, we’re very interdisciplinary, we blend fields, we’re open to change. Those are the kind of things that attract the people we hire.” 

The term “interdisciplinary” refers to work in two distinct academic fields of study. At ATLAS, we push this notion further, to expand boundaries, to cross-pollinate and change how we think about thinking—deep, focused research into highly specialized topics is essential, but equally important is our ability to investigate ideas across a wide range of fields.

ATLAS faculty have a different way of thinking about problems, one that sparks teams to come up with novel solutions. Despite this often unexpected approach, their research is grounded in the real world, in designing tangible things and in creating tools for others to expand on the core idea. Consider the work that Laura Devendorf, assistant professor of information science, undertakes in the Unstable Design Lab—she develops advanced software that opens the craft of weaving up to new possibilities of form and design, empowering artisans to push the medium forward.

We will continue to champion this expansive view of interdisciplinary research at ATLAS as a model for how polymaths can pursue research that would be unlikely to find a home in traditional settings, particularly in the fields of engineering and design. Our success in attracting CAREER-worthy talent proves the power of our approach to radical creativity.