Nicolas Pégard, assistant professor in the department of applied physical sciences in UNC’s College of Arts & Sciences, has been named a 2021 Beckman Young Investigator by the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation.
The prestigious award — $600,000 over four years — supports the nation’s most promising young faculty members in the early stages of their academic careers in the chemical and life sciences, particularly to encourage work that opens up new avenues of research.
Pégard is among 11 winners to receive the honor. He was selected from among a pool of 250 applicants by a panel of scientific experts.
“We are thrilled to recognize the amazing creativity and future potential in this outstanding group of scientists. Over the next four years, they will be tackling a broad range of problems, from exploring the deep ocean soundscape with elephant seals to determining the composition of chemical clouds in outer space,” said Anne Hultgren, executive director of the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation.
Pégard is the ninth faculty member from UNC-Chapel Hill since 2004 to receive a Beckman Young Investigator Award. He holds joint appointments in the department of biomedical engineering and at the UNC Neuroscience Center. His research in optical instrumentation aims to develop new technologies to monitor and manipulate biological systems with light.
The title of Pégard’s project is “Bidirectional Neuroprosthetics with Miniature Optical Brain Machine Interfaces.”
Optical brain machine interfaces use light to monitor and manipulate activity, but current technologies cannot reliably communicate with more than a few dozen neurons in parallel because they are fundamentally designed to take pictures, not to process neural information.
Pégard proposes to develop new optical technology and computational methods that are jointly optimized to read and write in individual neurons with light in dense brain tissue, at depths where microscopes cannot resolve focused images.
If successful, these technologies will provide neuroscientists with new experimental capabilities to reverse-engineer the brain functions driving perception, cognition and action, and will pave the way for future applications in neurology and rehabilitation medicine.
Pégard received his Ph.D. in electrical engineering in 2014 from Princeton University and received postdoctoral training at University of California, Berkeley. Shortly before joining UNC in 2019, he received a Career Award at the Scientific Interface from the Burroughs Wellcome Foundation.
The Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation “supports young scientists today for tomorrow’s breakthrough discoveries.”