Awards go to highly exploratory projects in the natural sciences

Written by
Catherine Zandonella, Office of the Dean for Research
March 22, 2017

A number of innovative research projects ranging from the sciences to the arts and engineering have been granted funding through Princeton's Office of the Dean for Research.

Each year, the Dean for Research Innovation Fund gives support for exploratory research projects that might not otherwise qualify for external grants.

"I am pleased that the University is able to provide funding for these original and creative research projects," said Dean for Research Pablo Debenedetti, the Class of 1950 Professor in Engineering and Applied Science and professor of chemical and biological engineering. "Each year our selection committees identify the best proposals from a truly outstanding collection of faculty submissions. This year's selected projects represent a wide range of exciting research directions across the disciplines."

New ideas in the natural sciences

Harvesting light with new earth-abundant catalysts 

A new approach aims to harness the power of light to catalyze chemical reactions to produce much-needed chemicals for use in industry, medicines and consumer products. Abigail Doyle, associate professor of chemistry, and Benjamin Shields, a graduate student in chemistry, are furthering the work conducted at Princeton on the use of visible light to drive new chemical reactions. These reactions currently require special catalysts, dubbed photoredox catalysts, which contain precious metals and serve as "middlemen" between visible light and the chemicals undergoing reaction. Doyle and her colleagues plan to develop novel catalysts based on abundant elements known as first-row transition metals that harvest the power of visible light without the need for a middleman, leading to less expensive and more targeted reactions.

Tracking colonies of self-organizing animals 

A school of fish, a raiding column of army ants, the synchronous flashing of fireflies — these self-organizing biological systems are fascinating to watch but difficult to study. To explore the mechanisms underlying these behaviors, Thomas Gregor, associate professor of physics and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, and Daniel Marlow, the Evans Crawford 1911 Professor of Physics, will design and construct a system for tracking individual ants in a colony by marking them with tiny amounts of radioactive dyes. The researchers' goal is to monitor the ants' activity via positron emission tomography (PET), a commonly used cancer screening method, and to use computer algorithms to construct models of insect behavior.

Genetic footprints of selection

The shift of human populations from rural to urban environments comes with major changes in diet, pathogen exposure and incidence of chronic diseases such as obesity and type-2 diabetes. To explore how natural selection shapes the human genome, Julien Ayroles, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, and Dino Martins, visiting lecturer in ecology and evolutionary biology and director of the Mpala Research Centre, will study changes in gene regulation when people migrate from an ancestral rural environment to an urban setting. Working with individuals from the Turkana tribe in northern Kenya, Ayroles and Martin will contrast the genomes of people who stayed in their ancestral land to those who moved to cities, shedding light on how the interplay of genes and environmental factors affect human health.