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UT News

Science and Engineering Faculty Earn Presidential Early Career Awards

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AUSTIN, Texas — Five faculty members from The University of Texas at Austin received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). The PECASE is the highest honor given by the United States government to scientists and engineers beginning their research careers.

UT Austin is one of only eight U.S. universities to receive five or more of these awards. Universities in Texas received 11 PECASE awards overall, the remaining six going to professors at other University of Texas System schools, Rice University, Southern Methodist University and Baylor University. Recipients are chosen by the National Science Foundation and other federal agencies.

The recipients include Whitney Behr, Jackson School of Geosciences; Namkee Choi, Steve Hicks School of Social Work; James Howison, School of Information; Todd Humphreys, Cockrell School of Engineering; and Sarah Powell, College of Education.

“Whitney, Namkee, James, Todd and Sarah have each made remarkable research discoveries that are reshaping the way we understand, and interact with, our world and society,” said UT Austin President Gregory L. Fenves. “These faculty members have established themselves as leaders across a wide range of disciplines, and we look forward to even more accomplishments from them in the future.”

More about each recipient:


Whitney Behr, Jackson School of Geosciences

Whitney Behr is a research fellow at the Jackson School of Geosciences. She studies the mechanics and deformation of plate boundaries and faults. Her recent work demonstrated a link between life on Earth and the speed of continental drift. Behr leads research across the globe, with ongoing projects in the Betic Cordillera of southern Spain, Syros Island, Greece, and the Mojave Desert in California.


Namkee Choi, Steve Hicks School of Social Work

Namkee Choi is a professor at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work and chairperson in gerontology, the study of aging. She studies depression in late life and improving depression treatments for low-income, racially diverse homebound seniors. Recently, Choi tested the effect of providing therapy to homebound older adults through video conferencing, often called teletherapy. The results were considered successful and are a step toward solving the larger problem of a national lack of geriatric mental health workers.


James Howison, School of Information

James Howison is an associate professor at the School of Information who studies the scientific software ecosystem. In a current project, Howison is developing tools to improve and measure the scholarly impact of software. By providing these tools, he hopes to increase incentives for academic software development.



Todd Humphreys, Cockrell School of Engineering

Todd Humphreys is an associate professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering. He directs the Radionavigation Laboratory at UT Austin and specializes in satellite navigation, collision avoidance and autonomous systems. Humphreys leads efforts to protect autonomous control systems — the systems used by autonomous cars and aircraft — from malicious attacks. He is an expert on GPS, developments in geolocation and their security implications.


Sarah Powell, College of Education

Sarah Powell is an associate professor in the Department of Special Education. She specializes in helping students who struggle with math by emphasizing math vocabulary and word-problem solving in curriculum. She is in the midst of a five-year project developing read-aloud resources for pre-school and elementary educators to improve literacy and math skills. She also studies the influence of symbols and vocabulary on math performance and the role of algebraic reasoning.