Bridging basic science research gap

Kaufman philanthropy awards $1.8 million to faculty at four Pa. universities

Posted: Aug 10, 2016

PITTSBURGH, Pa., Aug. 10, 2016 -- PITTSBURGH, Pa., Aug. 10, 2016 -- The Charles E. Kaufman Foundation, one of The Pittsburgh Foundation’s charitable entities, has announced a total of $1.8 million in grants awarded to support basic research in biology, chemistry and physics carried out by researchers working in Pennsylvania institutions of higher education.

In this fourth year of the annual competition, a total of eight grants were awarded to researchers at four Pennsylvania higher education institutions: Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh, The Pennsylvania State University and University of Pennsylvania.

The Kaufman Scientific Advisory Board received 229 letters of intent from 30 academic institutions seeking funding in two categories: New Investigators and New Initiatives.

The philanthropist who created the program, Charles E. Kaufman, was a respected chemical engineer who built his fortune in retirement through astute investing, much of it in drug- and science-based enterprises. When he died in 2010 at age 97, his $50 million estate transferred to The Pittsburgh Foundation. His Philanthropy was established with $40 million to support new research initiatives at Pennsylvania institutions of higher learning in chemistry, biology and physics. It is widely respected as one of the few major funding sources for basic scientific research.

Kaufman entrusted his fortune to the Foundation to realize his life-long ambition to use basic research grants to produce Nobel Prize-caliber scientific accomplishments that will contribute continually to the betterment of human life.

“It is very exciting to see these researchers show such creative thinking and promise, and with each year’s set of applicants, we have a deeper appreciation of the wisdom Mr. Kaufman showed in setting up this program,” Foundation President and CEO Maxwell King said in announcing this year’s grantees. “Of course, the winners and the universities appreciate the financial support and the career boosts that come with it, but the rest of us should be just as appreciative. All of us in this country stand to benefit from this model investment in basic science.” 

In describing the program, Dr. Graham Hatfull, chair of the seven-member Kaufman Scientific Advisory Board, said the focus is on bridging the gap in funding for fundamental scientific research by identifying promising new investigators and research. “Funding streams have continually declined, and the Kaufman grants provide funding that is essential for research in physics, chemistry and biology that can then be leveraged for additional national funding.” Hatfull is the Eberly Family Professor of Biotechnology and Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh. 

The grants also create an opportunity, Hatfull said, “for established researchers to work in a team environment often with peers from other scientific disciplines to open up new areas of research.”

The Kaufman board approved grants to four initiatives in each of the program’s two categories.

Under the New Investigators category, grants of $150,000 for two years ($75,000 per year) were awarded to:

-- Chad Hanna, Ph.D., assistant professor, department of physics, astronomy and astrophysics, The Pennsylvania State University, for research on “Reducing selection bias in gravitational wave detection of compact binary mergers;”

-- Elizabeth Heller, Ph.D., assistant professor, department of systems pharmacology and translational therapeutics, University of Pennsylvania, for research on “Neuroepigenetic remodeling in transcription and behavior”

-- Benjamin Hunt, Ph.D., assistant professor, department of physics, Carnegie Mellon University, for research on “Proximity effects and topological spin currents in van der Waals heterostructures”

-- Neil Tomson, Ph.D., assistant professor, department of chemistry, University of Pennsylvania, for research on “Coordination chemistry and catalysis using molecular-scale electric fields”

Under New Initiatives, grants of $300,000 for two years ($150,000 per year) were awarded to each of the following:

-- Elias Aizenman, Ph.D., professor of Neurobiology, and Michael Palladino, Ph.D., professor of Pharmacology and Chemical Biology, University of Pittsburgh, for research on “Genetic programming of a neuroprotective pathway in fly models of neurodegeneration;”

-- Brian D’Urso, Ph.D., assistant professor of Physics and Astronomy and Gurudev Dutt, Ph.D., assistant professor of Physics and Astronomy, University of Pittsburgh, for research on “Trapped diamond nanocrystals for precision gravitational measurements and tests of quantum gravity;”

-- Paul Babitzke, Ph.D., professor, department of biological sciences and molecular biology, Sarah Assmann, Ph.D., professor, department of biology and Philip Bevilacqua, Ph.D., professor, department of chemistry, The Pennsylvania State University, for research on “Discovery and characterization of novel RNA switch chemistry and biology via RNA structure-seq abstract;”

-- Roberto Bonasio, Ph.D., assistant professor, department of cell and developmental biology and Arjun Raj, Ph.D., assistant professor, department of bioengineering, University of Pennsylvania, for research on “Single-cell dissection of social behavior in ant brains.”

For further information contact:

Douglas Root
The Pittsburgh Foundation
412-394-2647
rootd@pghfdn.org

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