Kuhlman and Foley selected Sloan Foundation Fellows

Siv Schwink

Thomas Kuhlman, assistant professor of physics, and Ryan Foley, assistant professor of astronomy with an affiliate appointment in physics, are among the three faculty members at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to be selected for Sloan Research Fellowships by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

The two-year fellowships are awarded annually to 126 early-career scientists and scholars engaged in fundamental research, in recognition of distinguished performance and a unique potential to make substantial contributions to their field.

Physics Illinois alumnus Kai Sun, who received his doctoral degree from Physics Illinois in 2009 studying under Professor Eduardo Fradkin, is also among this year’s Sloan honorees. Sun currently holds an appointment as assistant professor of physics at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. There, he works in the Condensed Matter Theory Center on pressing questions related to topological states of matter and strongly correlated systems. He also maintains a strong interest in critical phenomena and exotic phases in ultracold gases.

Thomas E. Kuhlman

Thomas Kuhlman, U. of I. assistant professor of physics
Thomas Kuhlman, U. of I. assistant professor of physics
Kuhlman works at the intersection of experimental and theoretical biological physics. His research has tremendous implications for our identifying how gene expression is controlled and for our understanding of how genetic diseases develop and propagate.

In the lab, Kuhlman performs in vivo genome manipulation experiments, disrupting and rearranging the spatial and genomic organization of regulatory networks in Escherichia coli to directly observe and quantify the potential biophysical forces that determine the architecture and organization of genomes. Kuhlman’s molecular-engineered tools—now in use at dozens of labs around the world and licensed to several commercial biotech companies—allow the precise integration of large synthetic gene constructs into any desired location of the E. coli chromosome.

Using cutting-edge single-molecule microscopy, Kuhlman exposes how transcription factors regulate genes and reveals the consequences of genome organization on gene expression.

Since the fundamental mechanisms of gene regulation are similar over all domains of life, these observations may have implications for understanding gene regulation in higher organisms as well, including humans.

Kuhlman uses his experimental findings to construct theoretical models that describe the interaction of transcription factors with DNA; these models in turn motivate further in vivo experiments.

Kuhlman also experimentally studies the propagation of transposons through populations of E. coli cells, using a synthetic inducible transposon. Transposons, sometimes referred to as “junk DNA”, are mobile genetic elements present in all domains of life that can spontaneously change their position within a genome. Transposons are implicated in many diseases, including hemophilia, porphyria, and muscular dystrophy. This work has implications for future medical interventions for these and other transposon-related diseases.

Kuhlman received his bachelor’s degree from Ball University in physics and in biology with emphases in genetics and in cellular and molecular biology.

He earned his doctoral degree in physics from the University of California, San Diego, in 2007. While at UCSD he worked at the interface of theoretical physics and experimental biology, studying and validating statistical mechanical models of transcriptional and post-transcriptional gene regulation in E. coli.

From 2008 to 2012 Kuhlman worked as a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Molecular Biology at Princeton University, working in the lab of Professor Ted Cox, supported by a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) for Individual Postdoctoral Fellows.

Kuhlman joined the faculty at Physics Illinois in 2012.

Ryan J. Foley

Ryan Foley, U. of I. assistant professor of astronomy with an affiliate appointment in physics
Ryan Foley, U. of I. assistant professor of astronomy with an affiliate appointment in physics
With access to more than a dozen powerful telescopes around the world and in space, including the Hubble Space Telescope, Foley studies exploding stars and other transient celestial phenomena to increase our knowledge of the Universe.

Foley has established a close network of outstanding collaborators at major institutions around the globe. Early in his career, he has kept a rigorous pace of research; since earning his doctoral degree, he has published 24 first-author articles and 156 total journal articles.

The three primary thrusts to Foley’s research include (1) using Type Ia supernovae to measure the expansion history of the Universe and to further our understanding of dark energy, based on data from sky surveys like the Dark Energy Survey and his own Foundation Survey; (2) researching the progenitors and explosions of Type Ia supernovae, especially through a Hubble UV spectroscopy program he founded to uniquely probe the explosion physics and progenitor composition, and through the spectra of light echoes from historical Galactic supernovae (captured with the Keck telescopes) that reveal the asymmetries and physical conditions of ancient explosions; and, (3) studying transient celestial phenomena that fall outside of the standard categories of supernova, especially the Type Iax supernovae class, which he discovered and characterized.

Most recently, Foley and his collaborators discovered the progenitor system for one Type Iax supernova in pre-explosion Hubble images, the first detection of a progenitor system from a thermonuclear (or white dwarf) supernova. This discovery reveals more of the history of these low-energy cousins of Type Ia supernovae than we currently know about Type Ia.

Foley’s work involving the Dark Energy Survey relies heavily on the data management provided by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus. This infrastructure and the swift work of NCSA scientists are critical for timely discovery of supernovae; since supernovae rise and fall over a period of weeks, even a few days’ delay could be problematic for researchers.

In addition to his deep appreciation for big data research, Foley has a deep passion for teaching, a dedicated teacher who has introduced innovative techniques to the classroom, including research and collaborative tools.

Foley received his bachelor’s degree with a triple major in math, physics, and astrophysics from the University of Michigan in 2002. He earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in astrophysics from the University of California, Berkeley, in 2004 and 2008 respectively.

At Cal, Foley received the Uhl Prize, an award conferred annually for the best doctoral thesis in astrophysics.

From 2008 to 2013, Foley held a Clay postdoctoral fellowship at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. In 2012, he was selected for the Block Award, presented to “the most promising young physicist" at the Aspen Center for Physics Winter Meeting.

Foley joined the astronomy faculty at Illinois in 2013 with an affiliate appointment in physics.

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