In 2015, two faculty members — Dr. Elizabeth Vargis and Dr. Yujie Sun — received the Ralph E. Powe Junior Faculty Enhancement Award from the Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU). ORAU institutions can only nominate two faculty members for the award each year, and this year both of Utah State’s nominees received the award. Nationwide only three other institutions received this achievement.

Described by the ORAU as an award to “provide seed money for research by junior faculty at ORAU member institutions,” this matching grant funds new researchers. $5,000 comes from the ORAU and USU matches that $5,000, giving recipients a total of $10,000 in research funding.

“We’re proud of the quality of research across all levels at Utah State,” said McLellan, vice president of research and dean of graduate studies.

“Dr. Sun and Dr. Vargis’ accomplishment speaks to the excellence of our newest faculty.”

Sun’s research focuses on bifunctional water-splitting catalysts to accelerate the process of splitting water into separate hydrogen and oxygen particles. Splitting water is a way to store renewable energy in the form of chemical bonds.

Currently, there are two elements to the process: hydrogen evolution reaction (HER) and oxygen evolution reaction (OER). The two reactions must happen at the same time. At present, incompatibility of the two catalysts often results in poor results due to an asynchrony of the two processes. Dr. Sun’s goal is to develop one catalyst that will activate HER and OER simultaneously.

Vargis’ research is focused on controlling cell growth on eyes to combat retinal disease. When retinal cells are impacted by age, cells around them begin to die as well.

“The overall goal of this research is to develop in vitro models of eye disease,” she said. “And the way we’re doing this for retinal disease is by controlling where the cells grow.”

This allows the creation of a model of the eye disease in both its early and late stages. Identifying differences between normal and unhealthy cells can provide insights into the disease’s progression and development. With this understanding, Vargis believes there are means to prevent the escalation of the disease or even reverse the process.

Beginning in 1991, the Ralph E. Powe Junior Faculty Enhancement Awards has been given to junior faculty members who are employed at universities that are members of the ORAU.