Dean for Research awards emphasize innovation in the natural sciences

Written by
Catherine Zandonella, Office of the Dean for Research
March 23, 2018

Innovation Fund for New Ideas in the Natural Sciences

This initiative supports the exploration of new concepts and ideas that are at an early stage and may not be ready for forming the basis of a competitive proposal submitted to a funding agency.

Putting light to work for advanced technologies

Just as electrons flowing within semiconductor chips form the basis of today's computing, the flow of light in materials known as photonic solids could dramatically improve our technological capabilities. These new materials can steer, trap and manipulate light in various directions on a chip, putting light to work in a variety of applications, from computing to sensors to telecommunications.

Salvatore Torquato, professor of chemistry and the Princeton Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials, and Paul Steinhardt, the Albert Einstein Professor in Science and professor of physics, made a breakthrough discovery a few years ago when they created new light-controlling structures known as two-dimensional hyperuniform disordered photonic solids. With this new funding, the team will extend this concept to three-dimensional solids, which are essential if the technology is to find widespread application.  The research involves using computer algorithms to find the optimal hyperuniform disordered structures capable of directing light through the solids.

A new look at an established cancer drug        

New research on how the anti-cancer drug cisplatin behaves in the body aims to improve drug efficacy while reducing side effects. Long a standard treatment for cancer, cisplatin and other platinum-based compounds kill tumors by modifying the cancer cells' DNA. But the drug also affects RNA, the close cousin of DNA that acts as messenger in the expression of genes into proteins.

Ralph Kleiner, assistant professor of chemistry, and his team will examine platinum-modified RNA in living cells, a step that first involves the creation of fluorescent tags that make the structures visible under the microscope. The team will attempt to answer questions about how the drug's effects on RNA contribute to its anti-cancer activity, drug resistance and side effects. The ultimate goal is to provide new directions for research on the role of RNA in diseases and treatments.

Exploring the role of the microbiome in antibiotic resistance

A new theory to explain the pervasiveness of antibiotic drug resistance puts some of the blame on our own microbiome, the trillions of bacterial cells that live in the human intestines. These normally harmless bacterial cells may act as a reservoirs where genes that cause antibiotic resistance can survive and spread.

Mohamed Abou Donia, assistant professor of molecular biology, will investigate whether antibiotic-resistance genes can transfer from our microbiome bacteria into disease-causing bacteria that are passing through the intestines and are then excreted and able to infect new individuals.  The researchers will also look into the source of these antibiotic resistance genes, and whether they originated in the microbiome or have been transferred from passing bacteria. To carry out these investigations, the team will develop novel computational algorithms to first sift through all known antibiotic-resistance genes and identify ones that are found in human microbiome samples. Then, through mouse experiments, they will explore the effects that these genes have on the spread of antibiotic resistance.