Five projects awarded funding to explore new ideas in the natural sciences

Written by
Alaina O'Regan, Office of the Dean for Research
Catherine Zandonella, Office of the Dean for Research
June 14, 2023

Projects that explore what music can teach us about the brain, how cells protect themselves from damaging ultraviolet rays, and which planets may be capable of supporting life are among the five projects selected to receive the Dean for Research Innovation Funds for New Ideas in the Natural Sciences. The fund supports the exploration of early stage, high-potential ideas with the goal of eventually submitting a competitive external proposal. The winning proposals were selected based on their quality, originality and potential for impact through a process of anonymous peer review.

Jordan Taylor

Jordan Taylor, associate professor of psychology.

Representational change in motor skills: new insights from music performance

Jordan Taylor, associate professor of psychology, and his team aim to characterize how new motor skills are represented and organized in the brain by training people to learn notes on novel musical instruments while analyzing their brain activity. By leveraging both the psychological and physical dimensions of skill representation in the brain, the researchers will explore untapped areas in music psychology and offer a fresh take on what makes certain musical pieces challenging to perform. For example, Giant Steps by John Coltrane is widely considered one of the most challenging songs to improvise over in jazz because it frequently changes between keys that are far apart in the tonality space of Western music. As a result, the musician must frequently reconfigure the set of what notes are eligible to play, and it is thought to require “giant steps” in the psychological space of how music is represented in the brain. However, the role of action in music production is often overlooked, and the psychological representation should also govern how the brain of the musician organizes their motor skill for executing the appropriate finger coordination patterns. Ultimately, musical performance may serve as a model paradigm to understand the high-dimensional nature of how people learn and represent motor skills.

Ralph Kleiner

Ralph Kleiner, assistant professor of chemistry. Photo by C. Todd Reichart

Protection of cells from ultraviolet radiation through RNA modifications

Ralph E. Kleiner, assistant professor of chemistry, will evaluate how ultraviolet radiation from the sun can harm the body’s genetic material, in particular its RNA. To date, many studies have explored how the sun’s rays can damage DNA by causing mutations that play a role in causing cancer. However, few studies have looked at the harm done to RNA, which controls protein production and can be long-lived, and thus could be especially deleterious to cellular processes. The new study will explore the defense mechanisms that RNA may employ to protect against damaging mutations. Kleiner and his team plan to look for modifications to the molecules that can protect against the accumulation of RNA damage. They will also look for ways that the cells modify damaged RNA to inactivate it and thus protect themselves from the harmful effects of UV light.

Jie Deng

Jie Deng, assistant professor of geosciences. Photo by Laura Pedrick

Habitability of super-Earths: Prospecting for water and magnetic fields

Jie Deng, assistant professor of geosciences, will explore the potential for planets outside our solar system to possess two key conditions for supporting life: water and the generation of a magnetic field. Our Earth’s core is home to the largest water reservoir on the planet. Convection of metallic fluid in the core creates the planet’s magnetic field, which protects our planet from cosmic radiation. The existence of these two features on worlds beyond our solar system, or exoplanets, has been little studied. The new project will explore the signatures of water and magnetic fields on super-Earths, which are 1.2 to 2 times the size of Earth and up to ten times as massive with the goal of helping researchers determine which exoplanets can potentially support life. Deng and his team plan to model the behavior of uranium, potassium and other radioactive elements that generate heat which may be an important energy source of Earth’s magnetic dynamo. The researchers will use computer simulations and artificial intelligence to explore whether the elements behave in super-Earths as they do in our Earth. The researchers hope that the findings will establish strong foundations between the compositions of super-Earths’ cores and the planets’ habitability.

Joshua Shaevitz

Joshua Shaevitz, professor of physics and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics.

Sabine Petry

Sabine Petry, associate professor of molecular biology. Photo by Sameer A. Khan

Solving the structure of the mitotic spindle

Sabine Petry, associate professor of molecular biology, and Joshua Shaevitz, professor of physics and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, are developing a novel microscopy approach to better understand cell division, a process fundamental to life in which one cell splits into two. They plan to analyze in unprecedented detail the structure of a network of protein filaments, called the mitotic spindle, that plays a key role in cell division yet remains poorly understood due to its large size and high density of protein filaments. The researchers will combine AI-based computer vision with new, advanced expansion microscopy techniques to provide the first molecular image of the mitotic spindle. This deepened understanding of the spindle’s structure will provide a basis for understanding the origin of diseases that lie at the heart of cell division, such as cancer and infertility, and will open the door for dozens of other laboratories at Princeton to study subcellular structures using this new approach.

Thomas Gregor

Thomas Gregor, professor of physics and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics. Photo by Rick Soden, Department of Physics

Kevin Keomanee-Dizon

Kevin Keomanee-Dizon, associate research scholar in physics. Photo by Rick Soden, Department of Physics

Probing biological organization with molecular resolution

Kevin Keomanee-Dizon, associate research scholar in physics, Dicke fellow and a fellow in the Center for the Physics of Biological Function, and Thomas Gregor, professor of physics and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, will develop a microscope capable of seeing individual molecules as they interact with each other, offering insights into the mechanisms of living systems, the causes of diseases and the development of new therapeutics. Today’s confocal microscopes can see objects at molecular resolution but cannot capture the dynamic interplay of three-dimensional objects. Confocal microscopes can also create out-of-focus light that damages the molecules in the process. Another approach, light-sheet microscopy, can gently follow fast interactions by illuminating a “sheet” of light through living cells, but such light sheets are too thick to cleanly distinguish individual molecules, especially in complex multicellular organisms. The team plans to build a new microscope that uses very thin light sheets and combines molecular-scale resolution with the ability to track and perturb rapidly evolving events such as the organization of DNA in the cell nucleus and how genes switch on and off. Through this technology, researchers will be able to control and interact with cellular and multicellular activities as they take place, providing new information about the molecular foundations of life.