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UPR Mayagüez professor wins $1.25M Moore Foundation grant

Dr. Armando Rúa de la Asunción of the Physics Department at the University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez Campus (RUM) has been awarded a $1,250,000 grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to advance his experimental physics research over the next five years.

Rúa de la Asunción, who is the first scientist in Puerto Rico to earn this grant, joins 20 other researchers chosen from the 2023 cohort. The funds will support them in pursuing their innovative ideas and advancing in their field.

The Moore Foundation was established in 2000 with a $5 billion endowment from Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, and his wife, Betty Moore, both of whom made the announcement. Their foundation primarily backs scientific research, especially in emerging fields. Their initiative for experimental physics researchers is one of the foundation’s latest endeavors, which aims to provide grants that lead to significant impacts.

“This distinction recognizes the work done so far and will significantly facilitate its continuation and extension over the next years,” Rúa de la Asunción said. “It is a great achievement to be among the selected by the Moore Foundation for this initiative, as their programs are highly competitive. The project is essentially won based on the merit of the proposal and its foundation in previous work. 

“This validates our years of effort and, of course, has a positive impact on our students and our university environment. With these funds, we can acquire necessary equipment and provide funding for undergraduate and graduate students to continue traveling, as my students and I already do, to the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York to conduct parts of the research using advanced equipment that are not available in Puerto Rico.”

The professor emphasized that the grant would delve into the study of specific materials, such as certain vanadates, which are salts that undergo abrupt changes in their electrical, optical and mechanical properties when stimulated by temperature changes, intense electric fields, high pressures or strong light pulses.

“The physics behind these changes has been studied for many decades, but the responsible mechanisms are complex and still not well understood,” the professor said. “This project will allow us to contribute to the explanation of these phenomena. At the same time, we will explore applications of these materials for new electronic and optoelectronic devices. In particular, we are interested in the possibility of creating neuromorphic devices. These represent an approach to computing inspired by the way the brain functions. We hope that they will have significant advantages over current technology, including greater capacity for parallel computing and much less energy consumption.”

Rúa de la Asunción earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics from the University of the Atlantic in Colombia. He then earned his master’s in physics at UPR Mayagüez, mentored by Dr. Félix Fernández. He holds a doctorate in physics from the City University of New York’s (CUNY) Graduate Center, which he achieved under the guidance of Dr. Steve Greenbaum. In his eight-year tenure at RUM, he’s credited with two patents and more than 60 peer-reviewed publications.

He’s twice been sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense and is actively involved in two National Science Foundation-backed projects, one of which partners with Dr. Sergiy Lysenko, a fellow physicist.

Rúa de la Asunción collaborates with various researchers at RUM, Brookhaven National Laboratory’s Center for Functional Nanomaterials and the Australian National University in Canberra.

RUM’s chancellor, Dr. Agustín Rullán-Toro, lauded the professor, given that it will enable him to further contribute to his scientific field and enhance his work, which is of significance both on the island and globally.

“Congratulations to Dr. Armando Rúa de la Asunción for being the first scientist in Puerto Rico to receive this prestigious grant, which will undoubtedly enable him, along with his students, to expand his research, obtain more funding, and continue contributing to science as an ambassador of excellence from our university,” Rullán-Toro said.

The Moore Foundation noted that this initiative selects and supports researchers who are advancing experimental physics research that enhances the scientific understanding of the natural world.

During the selection process, where only the submitted projects are evaluated without identifying the proposers or the represented university,  the foundation said special attention is given to the culture of research groups to develop and reinforce practices that promote inclusion, equitable access to education and professional development within the experimental physics community.

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