$2.1 million awarded to scientific research based at Pa. universitiesStudies include understanding interbacterial competition that leads to bacterial colonization and trying to crack the code human embryos use to communicate
PITTSBURGH, Pa, Dec. 15, 2021 – The tremendous benefits of scientific research have been on display over the last couple of years like never before. During that time, the scientific advisory board of The Charles E. Kaufman Foundation read through more than 100 research proposals from early-career and established scientists for 2021 grants. The result is $2.1 million going to innovative and interdisciplinary scientific research at Pennsylvania universities.
Among the research funded is translating how human embryos communicate with one another using an elaborate language of signals to tell each of their stem cells when and where to divide, migrate and differentiate. Cracking that code would have broad implications for regenerative medicine by making it possible to guide the development of replacement tissues in the laboratory.
The fund was established in 2005 through a bequest from Charles E. Kaufman, who had a long career as a chemical engineer and later as an entrepreneur and investor. Upon his death in 2010, he left $43 million to the Foundation, of which $33 million was directed to supporting fundamental scientific research in chemistry, biology and physics at Pennsylvania institutions. Including this year’s grantmaking, the Foundation has awarded 81 grants totaling $16.6 million since 2013.
Interest from the science research sector remains high. The seven member Scientific Advisory Board of the Kaufman Foundation reviewed 121 inquiries from scientists at 23 colleges and universities. The latest awards will support research at the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, Washington and Jefferson College, Bucknell University, Drexel University, Pennsylvania State University, Swarthmore College, Bryn Mawr College, Haverford College and Franklin & Marshall College.
New Investigator grants empower scientists at the beginning of their careers who seek to make a mark in their fields and address core principles in biology, physics and chemistry or across the disciplinary boundaries of these fields. New Investigator research grants of $150,000 over two years ($75,000 per year) are awarded to:
- Matthew Clark, Ph.D., assistant professor, department of biology at Bucknell University, for “Identification of neural circuits governing flight control in Drosophila,” which explores how internal systems in fruit flies work together to generate a continuous stream of cohesive motor commands during flight.
- Zheng Kuang, Ph.D., assistant professor, department of biological sciences at Carnegie Mellon University, for “Microbial regulation of sex-specific circadian rhythms in the mammalian gut,” which explores the mechanics of why metabolism is different in males and females. Using mice, researchers will study how gut microbiota regulates sex-specific rhythms in the intestine and how that affects nutrient absorption and energy stores.
- Joshua Lequieu, Ph.D., assistant professor, chemical and biological engineering at Drexel University, for “Unraveling multicomponent biomolecular condensates with field-theoretic simulations,” which explores a newer class of intracellular compartments called biomolecular condensates. These differ from typical compartments in that they do not rely on a membrane, and better understanding them could lead to innovations in treating disease.
- Tera Levin, Ph.D., assistant professor, department of biological sciences at the University of Pittsburgh, for “Playing with fire: How bacteria deploy self-targeting antimicrobials during inter-bacterial battles,” which will study mechanisms of interbacterial competition in Legionella pneumophila, which can colonize plumbing systems and cause outbreaks of Legionnaire’s disease.
- Linxiao Zhu, Ph.D., John J. and Jean M. Brennan Clean Energy Early Career Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering The Pennsylvania State University, for “Creating supercurrents in thermal transport,” which will explore a phenomenon called supercurrents. These do not move by the same means as electrical or mass current. Successful completion could open opportunities to explore new physics and possibly have important implications for harvesting renewable energy.
New Initiatives grants encourage investigators with strong research records to establish interdisciplinary collaborations requiring expertise beyond that of any single researcher and take a novel approach to the topic in question. New Initiative Grants of $300,000 over two years ($150,000 per year) are awarded to:
- Eva-Maria Collins, Ph.D. (PI), associate professor, biology department and Ameet Soni, Ph.D. (Co-PI) associate professor, computer science at Swarthmore College, for “Inferring brain function via quantitative behavioral phenotyping in free-moving planarians,” which will explore behavior as a means to better understand how the brain works. Researchers propose to connect behavior to brain function by using an unbiased quantitative characterization of the free behaviors of the asexual freshwater planarian (collective name for a type of flatworm) Dugesia japonica, which have the same neuronal genes and neurotransmitters as humans.
- Nathan Lord, Ph.D. (PI), assistant professor, department of computational and systems biology and Mo Ebrahimkhani, Ph.D. (Co-PI), associate professor, department of pathology and member of the Pittsburgh Liver Research Center at the McGown Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine for “Spatially guided morphogenesis in human liver organoids,” which explores the elaborate language of signals used by human embryos. This language tells each cell when and where to divide, migrate and differentiate and this research seeks to systematically decode the molecular language that enables embryos to control organ development.
- Yongxin Zhao, Ph.D. (PI), assistant professor, department of biological sciences, Alison Barth, Ph.D. (co-investigator), Maxwell H. and Gloria C. Connan, professor of biological sciences, both at Carnegie Mellon University, for “Molecular synaptic profiling of learning-dependent changes in cortical inhabitation,” which seeks to better understand how inhibitory neurons in the mammalian brain reconfigure within the brain’s cortical circuitry to respond to sensory learning.
Integrated Research-Education Grants support research that directly engages undergraduate students alongside innovative scientists engaged in basic, fundamental, hands-on research that could lead to new discoveries and peer-reviewed publications. An Integrated Research-Education Grant of $100,000 over two years ($50,000 per year) are awarded to:
- Kelly M. Lohr, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology at Washington & Jefferson College, for “Environmental exposures and neurodegenerative disease in a Drosophila model,” which examines other possible causes of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. The majority of cases are not linked to a single genetic cause and this study will explore possible links to neurodegenerative diseases.
- Patrick Melvin, Ph.D., assistant professor, chemistry department at Bryn Mawr College, for “Improving on Mother Nature: Efficient fluorination of organic molecules using a novel sulfur reagent,” which will explore how to better facilitate the fluorination of a multitude of molecules under conditions that were previously impossible. The powerful element has many positive benefits, including in pharmaceuticals, but, without a blueprint from nature, organic chemists have been tasked with developing their own methodology for incorporating it.
- Kristen E. Whalen, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology at Haverford College, for “Elucidating the protective role of bacterial signals in algal host-virus dynamics,” to explore how interactions among bacteria and their hosts evade viral infections and influence the physiology of both the bacteria and phytoplankton and influence ocean biogeochemistry.
In addition, two proposals that did not receive a Kaufman grant but were rated highly by the scientific advisory board were awarded Foundation-directed funds totaling $195,230 over two years from The Pittsburgh Foundation:
- Ryan Trainor, Ph.D., assistant professor of physics at Franklin & Marshall College for “Galaxy growth and feedback traced by Lyman-Alpha Emission,” which will use existing data and new observations to address to major questions in astronomy. First, how does “feedback” from stars and supermassive black holes affect the galaxies and their circumgalactic medium (the key regulator of the galactic gas supply) and, second, how do these processes affect surveys that use galaxies to trace cosmic evolution?
- Moria Chambers Ph.D., assistant professor of biology and Sarah Lower, assistant professor of biology, both at Bucknell University for “Impact of life-stage on immune investment in the common eastern firefly,” which will explore how life-stage impacts overall resistance and tolerance to bacterial infection.
Trainor's research will receive $95,230 over two years and Chambers and Lower's will receive $100,000 over two years. These grants are from the Stott and Thurman Funds of The Pittsburgh Foundation.