UC Davis mathematician, neuroscientist win Sloan Fellowships

Two new faculty members at the University of California, Davis, neuroscientist Marie Burns and mathematician Alexander Soshnikov, have won prestigious Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowships worth $40,000 over two years.

Burns studies how light-sensitive cells generate signals. For vision to work properly, the thousands of light-sensitive cells in the retina -- rods and cones -- have to switch on and off very quickly in response to light and darkness. The "on" switch is a biochemical pathway called the G-protein cascade, which stays on as long as the cell is exposed to light. Burn's laboratory studies how the G-protein cascade is extinguished when the lights go out.

G-protein cascades are also found in all kinds of other cells, Burns said. They amplify signals from the cell surface and transmit them to other parts of the cell. G-protein cascades in photoreceptors and other neurones are especially interesting because they have to switch on and off very quickly compared to other cells. Elsewhere in the brain, they are involved in processes such as learning and memory, she said. G-proteins in photoreceptors are a good model system for signaling in other cells in the nervous system and elsewhere, Burns said.

Soshnikov studies pure statistics and mathematical physics. One area of his research is random matrix theory, originally proposed in the 1950's by physicist Eugene Wigner as a way of predicting the energy levels of atomic nuclei. Wigner's matrices are large tables of values, with each value being randomly set, for example at 1 or minus 1. Wigner hoped that although the values in the tables were random, the properties shown by typical tables would give insight on quantum mechanics, Soshnikov said.

Mathematicians have made notable progress with random matrix theory in the last ten years. Soshnikov's own work has shown that some rules, previously found by Craig Tracy from UC Davis and Harold Widom from UC Santa Cruz to be true for some

Contact: Andy Fell
University of California - Davis

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