Washington State University assistant professor David Rector is among 20 recipients nationwide of the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation’s 2004 Young Investigator Awards.

The grant is a three-year award totaling $240,000 given to some of the nation’s most promising young faculty members who are in the first three years of a tenure-track appointment.

Rector’s work seeks to understand and define a unique sensory ability among harbor seals. The seal’s whiskers are an integral part of its neurosensory capabilities, somewhat like a human’s sense of touch. The mammals can sense extremely small changes in hydrodynamic forces in the water caused by passing fish or vessels. As a result, they process that information in their brains and track prey or other objects at great distance without any other sensory clues such as sight, smell or sound.

Rector and his colleagues hope to eventually produce scientific instrumentation that mimics the seal’s unique ability. Such a device may have applications in the silent detection and tracking of hostile water-borne objects and threats. It is speculated the technology also could be useful in tracking and identifying water-borne pollutants or other hazardous chemicals.

In addition, Rector’s study of neurosensory capabilities prompted him to help build a unique fiber optic helmet that uses light, monitors and cameras to create three-dimensional images of changes in the reflected light caused by cell activity in the brain. No other brain imaging technology in the world can collect as much data as this system.

Such scattered-light imaging likely will change the way people are diagnosed with various brain problems. The helmet is lightweight, portable (so brain activity can be monitored while a person is engaged in various tasks), and gives a higher resolution than magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology while costing a small fraction of an MRI machine.

The Beckman awards are intended to promote a broad spectrum of chemistry and life sciences research. The foundation particularly tries to foster the invention of methods, instruments and materials that will open new avenues of scientific research.

Rector joined the faculty of the Department of Veterinary and Comparative Anatomy, Pharmacology and Physiology in 2002. Alex Li, a WSU associate professor of chemistry, also was awarded a Beckman grant in 2003.

Arnold and Mabel Beckman founded Beckman Instruments, Inc., in 1935. While teaching at California Institute of Technology, where he received a doctorate, Beckman invented and produced a pH meter. The device was the forerunner of modern electrochemical instrumentation. Variations of the meter are still in use today.