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Saturday, September 23, 2023

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From left to right: (top) Natalie Mladenov, Chris Warren, Hilary McMillan; (bottom) Noe Crespo, Iana Castro, Junfei Xie, Marina Kalyuzhnaya From left to right: (top) Natalie Mladenov, Chris Warren, Hilary McMillan; (bottom) Noe Crespo, Iana Castro, Junfei Xie, Marina Kalyuzhnaya

Presidential Research Fellows Honored for Advancing Their Fields

The awards will support research, scholarship and creative activities in a variety of disciplines, from geography to public health.
By Kellie Woodhouse

Seven faculty members have been named Presidential Research Faculty Fellows at San Diego State University in recognition of their outstanding research, scholarship and creative endeavors. Each fellow received $25,000 to support their research activities. 

Two faculty members promoted to associate professor received the 2023 ad: Junfei Xie (electrical and computer engineering) and Chris Warren (sound design). Five faculty members promoted to full professor were also named: Natalie Mladenov (civil engineering), Noe Crespo (public health), Marina Kalyuzhnaya (biology), Iana Castro (marketing) and Hilary McMillan (geography).

“As we continue to grow, it’s vital that we celebrate and reward the faculty members whose world-class research is driving not only the growth in reputation and investment in our university, but also opportunities for our students,” said SDSU President Adela de la Torre. “The work of our faculty, across all disciplines, contributes to the greater social good while preparing our students for high-impact careers. It’s this focus on positive impact, on application, that further defines what research means at SDSU.” 

The Presidential Research Fellowships were established in 2022 as a way to recognize faculty for their world-class research, scholarship and creative activities. The fellowships are sponsored by the Division of Research and Innovation and the Division of Academic Affairs, and awarded annually in association with promotion and tenure. 

Deans from each academic college nominated faculty members based on contributions to their discipline and the impact of their work on the public interest. Madanat and Provost Salvador Hector Ochoa reviewed all of the nominations and made recommendations to de la Torre, who selected the fellows. 

“These scholars are at the very top of their fields, and I am thrilled we are able to recognize and reward them for their incredible contributions to their field and to this university,” said Hala Madanat, vice president for research and innovation. 

Here is a look at each of the new research fellows:

Iana Castro - Marketing

Castro studies consumer decision-making related to food choices and understanding and addressing food access challenges in underserved communities. In 2017, she developed and co-founded BrightSide Produce, a produce distribution model created to address the limitations of traditional distribution systems that result in limited access to healthy foods in smaller food stores, such as corner and convenience stores.

“I am so honored to have been selected as a Presidential Research Faculty Fellow,” said Castro, who has published research on parent-child food decision-making and how the environment in retail settings influences consumer responses and behaviors. “I am passionate about the work that I am doing. Everyone should have access to healthy food options in their communities and I hope that my ongoing work will have an impact on how we understand and address limited healthy food access in communities across the country.”  

Noe Crespo – School of Public Health

“This award means a lot to me personally because I am a Mexican immigrant that grew up in poverty and a first-generation college graduate,” said Noe Crespo, a professor of health promotion and behavioral science. “My path to success has been supported and influenced by family, friends and close colleagues who believed in me and by the many opportunities that have been provided to me. This award is a testament and a celebration of all their contributions, and I share this award with all of them.”

Crespo’s vast research portfolio focuses on eliminating health disparities among vulnerable and underserved populations, locally, nationally, and globally to address many of the U.S. Healthy People 2030 objectives.

“The award also has significant meaning for me professionally, because it celebrates the culmination of a lot of hard work and effort that my team and my collaborators have put forth to conduct meaningful and impactful public health research, especially as it relates to addressing the COVID-19 pandemic,” Crespo added. 

Marina Kalyuzhnaya - Biology

Kalyuzhnaya research uses bacteria to combat climate change. In her lab, she grows methanotrophic bacteria that convert methanol into proteins to build novel materials like super-strong spider silk. These innovations will help farms and sewage treatment plants with excess methane gas become less wasteful.

“I am so glad that my colleagues and administration acknowledged my team’s contributions to a unique field of non-traditional microbial metabolism. I tell my team it is our award!” Kalyuzhnaya said.

In addition to this recognition, President De la Torre’s Big Ideas initiative and the California State University Program for Education and Research in Biotechnology have both recognized Kalyuzhnaya’s collaborative leadership skills.


Hilary McMillan - Geography

McMillan’s research focuses on the vital topic of water: how much we have, how we measure it, where it is stored, and how much will be available in the future. A hydrologist, McMillan has published numerous peer-reviewed articles, many in the field’s top journals. 

A hallmark of McMillan’s research is that she frequently mentors students, contributing to the university’s pedagogical mission of providing a high-impact education, and she works collaboratively and internationally. 

“I am excited and honored to receive this award. I plan to use it as seed funding to explore some new and higher-risk topics such as how we can use machine learning to generate new insights from previous field studies,” McMillan said. “The results will help me apply for larger grant funding in the future. The award will also support research and professional development for my students, who are an essential part of my lab.” 

Natalie Mladenov - Water Resources Engineering

Most San Diegans run from the rain, but rain is where water sustainability researcher Mladenov’s research begins. In her Water Innovation and Reuse Lab (WIRlab), the San Diego County Engineering Council 2022 Outstanding Educator tackles real-world problems with interdisciplinary research collaborators to understand pollution in both natural surface waters, such as rivers, and engineered systems, such as wastewater treatment facilities. 

The fellowship supports Mladenov’s ongoing research, like her most recent study which found that bacterial outbreaks in the San Diego River are caused primarily by leaks in aging sewer pipes. "We need to maintain our infrastructure if we want to have the high-quality living we have here," said Mladenov in a recent CBS8 interview.

Christopher Warren - Music

Warren has always been fascinated by the relationship between sound and space. His extensive research in acoustic measurement has produced EchoThief, a library of reverberation from around North America that is so precise it measures exactly how a sound resonates within a space before evaporating into silence. These sonic snapshots of distinctive spaces have been featured in video games (Sony, Bethesda), museum exhibits, sonic software, and artistic work around the globe.  

“Acoustic spaces strongly shape the sounds that inhabit them; by digitizing these spaces, we can create powerful tools to rework and reimagine sound,” said Warren. “This fellowship will help me to greatly expand my library of reverberation and share it widely.”

Junfei Xie - Electrical and Computer Engineering

What once seemed a distant advancement in the world of drone technology is now becoming a reality in Xie’s SysteMs & InteLligEnce (SMILE) Laboratory: “In the near future, drones will become an indispensable part of modern society, providing various services to make our lives easier,” she said. 

This fellowship allows Xie to continue her groundbreaking work on airborne networks formed by drones with direct flight-to-flight communication links, further opening the door to the possibility of artificial intelligence being integrated into drone systems. Future capabilities include cargo and passenger delivery, traffic monitoring, and even search and rescue. 

Suzanne Finch, Lizbeth Parsons, Peggy Pico, Leslie I.J. Reilly, Melinda Sevilla, Sarah White and Kellie Woodhouse contributed to this article.