Inaugural Dean for Research Innovation Funds inspire bold directions

Tuesday, Mar 4, 2014

A new initiative to encourage bold and creative research at Princeton University is poised to bear fruit: The first annual Dean for Research Innovation Funds have been awarded to a group of projects that push the boundaries of research in the natural sciences, encourage research partnerships with industry, and facilitate collaborations between investigators in the arts and the sciences or engineering.

Created in fall 2013 to encourage promising and original research, the program supports projects that may be too risky for conventional funding sources, or involve uncommon collaborations, according to Dean for Research Pablo Debenedetti, the Class of 1950 Professor in Engineering and Applied Science and professor of chemical and biological engineering.

"Through these new funds, Princeton University is enabling its researchers to pursue promising ideas that are at the early stages as well as collaborations that lead to new discoveries," Debenedetti said.

• Bold research in the natural sciences awards:

—"Neuron bridge" for nerve injury

To treat severe nerve damage, Professor of Molecular Biology Jean Schwarzbauer and Professor of Chemistry Jeffrey Schwartz have designed a "neuron bridge" over which new neurons could grow, replacing damaged ones. They use a surface patterned with raised stripes, which Schwartz compares to lanes on a bridge, to encourage cells to align and grow in the same direction. The image shows neurons (red) growing on an aligned extracellular matrix (green). Image courtesy of Jean Schwarzbauer.Injuries to the spinal cord and other parts of the nervous system can be impossible or difficult to repair because new nerve cells have difficulty traversing the damaged or scarred region. Professor of Molecular Biology Jean Schwarzbauer and Professor of Chemistry Jeffrey Schwartz have been awarded $188,000 to develop an implantable "bridge" over which new neurons can grow.

Current treatments for nerve injury involve surgical grafts or the insertion of a small tube through which neurons may bypass the damaged region. "The issue with spinal cord injuries is that nerve cells can only grow back over short distances, and grafts are not always successful," Schwarzbauer said. "The tubes also have problems, because if the tube is too narrow, cells cannot access nutrients and they die."

The "neuron bridge" is open to the cellular environment so it could promote new neuron growth without restricting nutrients. The bridge is patterned with parallel stripes — made through surface-modification chemistry — that encourage support cells to grow toward the other side of the damaged region. As the cells grow, they assemble a supportive scaffold known as extracellular matrix, providing a cable-like structure that spans the injury site on which new neurons can grow and make connections with other neurons.

"Just as lane-lines on a bridge keep cars moving parallel to one another, these stripes keep the cells growing in alignment," said Schwartz. "The bridge might enable a process that is similar to the natural progression of nerve repair."

A total system for studying the brain and behavior

To explore how the brain takes in information, processes it, and directs the body to act, Joshua Shaevitz, an associate professor of physics and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, and Andrew Leifer, a Lewis-Sigler Fellow, have designed an all-in-one system to study all of the neurons in the 'brain' of a worm, C. elegans. The system will allow the researchers to stimulate neurons, record as other neurons in the brain become active, and observe the resulting movement in the animal. Image courtesy of Andrew Leifer.Scientists have much to learn about how the brain takes in information, processes it and directs the body to respond. To develop a system for studying these steps in a living organism, Joshua Shaevitz, an associate professor of physics and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, and Andrew Leifer, a Lewis-Sigler Fellow, will receive $200,000 over two years.

The researchers will develop an all-in-one system for studying how neuronal activity dictates behavioral responses in the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans, whose brain contains about 150 neurons rather than the millions found in larger animals.

"The system will allow us to figure out what all the neurons in the brain do while the worm is wiggling around and doing its thing," Shaevitz said. "This will enable us to answer questions about how perturbations to its neurons influence the behavior of networks of neurons and translate to behaviors."

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Shaevitz and Leifer will build a prototype consisting of multiple cameras and light sources mounted above the worms as they move. Blue light will stimulate activity of targeted neurons while the cameras capture the activity of all of the neurons in the brain and simultaneously track the worms' movement. A computer program will combine the input and imaging data to decipher how the neuronal activity leads to behaviors.

—Reconstructing past carbon dioxide levels

To study the historical levels of carbon dioxide levels and corresponding climate changes, Daniel Sigman, the Dusenbury Professor of Geological and Geophysical Sciences, will study the carbon content of fossils from foraminifera phytoplankton (pictured), recovered from sediments beneath the deep ocean in the tropical and subtropical regions. Image courtesy of Marietta Straub.The carbon dioxide levels of the past could reveal how much warming to expect as those levels rise. Most of the knowledge about historic carbon dioxide levels comes from air trapped in ice cores, but this record goes back only about 800,000 years.

To reconstruct the carbon dioxide levels of the distant past, Daniel Sigman, the Dusenbury Professor of Geological and Geophysical Sciences, has received $193,000 over two years to measure the carbon trapped in the fossils of phytoplankton shells.

Trapped in the shell wall, the fossil-bound organic matter is protected from biological decomposition and chemical alteration, preserving it for millions of years. A method for extracting minute quantities of organic matter has already been developed at Princeton and applied to nitrogen, and Sigman is confident that the technique can be applied to carbon-based compounds.

The eventual goal, said Sigman, is to study carbon dioxide in the surface waters of the low-latitude ocean. This region is crucial to understanding the past atmospheric carbon dioxide levels because here, dissolved carbon dioxide in the water is near equilibrium with atmospheric carbon dioxide, so the ocean levels are a close proxy of atmospheric levels. "More accurate reconstruction of atmospheric carbon dioxide at times prior to the last 800,000 years would do much to test the widely held belief that carbon dioxide changes underlie most of the major climate changes over Earth's history," Sigman said. "This in turn would improve our understanding of how today's rising levels of carbon dioxide will affect global temperatures."

• Collaborations between artists and scientists or engineers awards:

—Ancient art and the Higgs boson

The secrets of ancient art works could be revealed using an approach borrowed from physics, namely, the use of elementary particles called muons to probe the inner structures of artifacts such as this Chinese bronze ritual vessel, dated from about 1300 BC. The collaboration consists of Robert Bagley, professor of art and archaeology, and Christopher Tully, professor of physics. Image courtesy of Robert Bagley.What does the Higgs boson have to do with ancient art? A technique proposed to study the boson — involving elementary particles called muons — can also be used to learn how ancient artifacts were made, according to two Princeton professors, Robert Bagley of art and archaeology and Christopher Tully of physics. The researchers have been awarded $145,000 to explore using muons to probe the manufacture of Chinese Bronze Age vessels and bells.

Muons can travel through walls and already have been used to search for hidden chambers in Egyptian pyramids. The ability to travel through objects could provide art historians a way to see inside the bronze walls of ancient vessels, Bagley said.

"These ancient vessels were elaborately constructed, using multiple casting steps that took a remarkable level of technical ability," he said. "A method for seeing the hidden joined regions between two castings could help us understand how artists came up with their ideas and designs."

To use muons for probing art objects, technological improvements must be made, Tully said. "Today's muon beams lack the intensity we need, either for producing Higgs particles or for evaluating ancient artifacts," he said. "It is analogous to having a flashlight when what we need is a laser."

The funding will go toward developing a muon beam imaging system and the purchase of a high-precision X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometer, which reveals the identity of surface metals and can be used to provide performance benchmarks for the muon beam. The XRF will be available to art researchers on campus. The project also offers opportunities for undergraduates to travel to the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Chicago to test the muon beam.

Regular meetings between students in physics and art history will bring together two disciplines that rarely intersect, said Bagley, who noted, "This is the first opportunity that I have had to work with a physicist on campus."

Tully agreed. "One of the best things about this project is being able to interact with my colleagues on the other side of campus. I like the idea that we might learn something completely unexpected."

—Flock logic

An interest in the science and art of flocking behavior in birds and schooling in fish led to a 2010 collaboration between Naomi Leonard, the Edwin S. Wilsey Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and Susan Marshall, professor of dance in the Lewis Center for the Arts. The exploration of flocking as conducted by dancers will be expanded to incorporate music with the addition of Daniel Trueman, professor of music. Image courtesy of the Lewis Center for the Arts.Collective animal motion — from flocking birds to schooling fish — is inspirational to artists and intriguing to scientists and engineers.

A collaborative group of artists and engineers is exploring how these complex flocking motions emerge from individual movements defined by simple rules of response, rather than from a preset choreography or designated leader. The original project, conducted in 2010 and known as Flock Logic, involved dancers that communicated via visual cues. To extend their explorations to include sound and three-dimensional movement, the research team will receive $75,000.

The faculty members involved in the project are Naomi Leonard, the Edwin S. Wilsey Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering; Susan Marshall, professor of dance in the Lewis Center for the Arts; and Daniel Trueman, professor of music.

"Since seeing the video of the original Flock Logic project, I've wondered how sound, alongside vision, might play a role in the flocking process," Trueman said. "I also am really curious to see what kinds of sonic and musical possibilities emerge."

In addition to artistic questions, the project will enable the exploration of questions about how the collective motion of groups emerges, and is influenced by, the rules of response, the dynamics of social interactions, the distribution of information across the group, the spatial surroundings, the noise in measurements and the uncertainty in decision making. These insights could inform the designs for control of robotic groups.

—Creative matter:

This elaborate high chest of drawers is among the objects that will be evaluated by materials scientists at Princeton to help answer questions relating to works of art and their environmental implications. The collaboration consists of George Scherer, the William L. Knapp '47 Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering;  Karl Kusserow, the John Wilmerding Curator of American Art; and James Steward, director of the Princeton University Art Museum. High chest of drawers, ca. 1770. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Mahogany, tulip poplar, white cedar, and brass. Princeton University, Prospect House, bequest of Mrs. Mary K. Wilson Henry. Image courtesy of Princeton University Art Museum. Art is made from materials, and these materials — whether paint, metal, clay, wood or stone — can help broaden our understanding of art in an environmental context.

Researchers will explore the materials used in pieces from Princeton's collection of historical American works. The collaboration will enable art historians to learn more about the environmental and social impacts of art materials, such as whether certain paints were toxic or whether a type of wood was hewn by slave labor.

The project, led by Karl Kusserow, the John Wilmerding Curator of American Art; James Steward, director of the Princeton University Art Museum; and George Scherer, the William L. Knapp '47 Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, will receive $75,000.

The environmental questions spring from an emerging interest in reexamining art through an ecological lens and will serve as one aspect of a traveling exhibition planned for 2016-17, "Nature's Nation: American Art and Environment."

"By learning about the materials that went into creating art objects," Kusserow said, "we can begin to address issues of environmental and social justice, as well as other concerns not previously considered in relation to such things."

"Science is often applied to art materials in terms of how to preserve or repair an object," Scherer said. "In this project, we will explore the social and environmental impact of the choice of materials employed."

Steward said the collaboration fits with the museum's initiative to find points of intersection with disciplines across campus. "This new effort challenges us to think about themes of American art in a way that emphasizes physicality and materiality," Steward said. "It represents a new way of thinking about materials as integral to the art and its meaning."

Industrial partners and collaborators awards:

—Improving the production of biofuels

Richard Register, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, will collaborate with an industrial partner, Promerus LLC, on a technology that can help boost the production efficiency of a biofuel known as butanol.  Image courtesy of Osvaldo Gago,, via Wikimedia Commons.Biofuels are an eco-friendly alternative to fossil fuels, but they are not yet able to replace fossil fuels. Richard Register, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, has been awarded up to $250,000 over three years to collaborate with an industrial partner on a technology that can help boost the production efficiency of a biofuel known as butanol.

Butanol has advantages over the more commonly used ethanol, which is so corrosive that it can constitute no more than 15 percent of each gallon of regular gasoline. By contrast, butanol can be used at 100 percent strength.

Yet butanol production — carried out in large vats via a process known as fermentation by organisms such as yeast or bacteria — is restricted by the fact that the butanol kills off the very organisms that produce it. To maximize the efficiency of production, the butanol must be regularly removed from the water in a bioreactor.

Register aims to develop a specialized filter for separating out butanol. He has teamed with Promerus LLC, an Ohio-based subsidiary of Sumitomo Bakelite Co., Ltd. specializing in manufacturing specialty polymers. Princeton will match Promerus' contribution to the research in years two and three of the project up to $75,000 per year, and has allocated $100,000 for research in year one.

Register will work with Promerus to develop new kinds of "block copolymers," which are specialized structures capable of separating gaseous butanol from water on a continuous basis without having to stop fermentation periodically to collect the butanol. This process would translate to significant energy and cost savings.

The project is challenging because water and butanol molecules are similar in size and solubility. "These funds will enable us to advance the fundamental knowledge of block copolymers while helping to create a product that is needed for the expanded use of biofuels," Register said. "This is a project we would not have been able to take on without the Dean for Research Innovation Fund."

Faster wireless networks

New technologies that could improve wireless networks by combining light-based (photonic) and electronic components on a single microchip are under development in the laboratory of Paul Prucnal, professor of electrical engineering in collaboration with L-3 Communications Telemetry-East. This model shows a silicon-on-insulator wafer that traps optical signals in its top layer. Then waveguides and mirrors are etched into the silicon to guide and confine light. Finally, a different semiconductor material is bonded to the waveguide layer to create the electronic components. Image courtesy of Alexander Tait.As smartphones and other wireless devices grow in popularity, the amount of data communication resources — or bandwidth — will not be able to support consumer demand for wireless access.

One way of alleviating the bandwidth barrier is through improvements in signal processing. For example, it is possible to 'cancel' the channel on which one is sending a signal, allowing two communicating devices to send and receive along the same channel, potentially doubling the number of available channels. However, traditional electronics-based approaches to the problem tend to be slow and are vulnerable to noise and interference.

Professor of Electrical Engineering Paul Prucnal and his team have been awarded funding to work with an industrial collaborator, L-3 Communications Telemetry-East, to develop a low power, portable microchip that combines the unique physics of light together with electronics. Princeton will match L-3 Communications Telemetry-East's contribution to the research in years two and three of the project up to $75,000 per year, and has allocated $100,000 to the project in year one.

Photonic systems primarily use light to encode information and allow a large amount of data to be sent very quickly with little loss of signal and low signal-to-noise ratios. Electronic systems can operate using low power and are highly portable. An optical interference cancellation system that uses photonics and electronics could improve the efficiency of communications and expand the bandwidth availability of cellphones.

"We are building optical circuits which can process information at much higher speeds than are possible with electronic circuits," Prucnal said. "The goal is to create a low-cost, portable and widely deployable technology that could greatly enhance the efficiency of wireless networks."

Electrical engineering graduate students Matthew Chang, Alexander Tait, John Chang, Mitchell Nahmias and postdoctoral research associate Bhavin Shastri are part of the research team.