Innovative ideas in the natural sciences receive Dean for Research funding

Written by
Catherine Zandonella, Office of the Dean for Research
May 24, 2019

Three early-stage research projects with the potential to address significant scientific questions have been selected to receive funding through the Dean for Research Innovation Fund for New Ideas in the Natural Sciences.

One of the projects aims to apply a powerful microscope to view the opening and closing of cellular gates that play major roles in health and disease. Another project will harness artificial intelligence to aid in the study of how we perceive emotions in others. The third project will explore how the immune system of elephant seals protects against numerous pathogens.

The fund encourages projects that strike a new direction or take a risk on a fresh idea, projects that may not be far enough along to merit funding from federal agencies. The winning proposals were selected based on their quality, originality and potential for impact through a process of anonymous peer review.

Tiny cellular gatekeepers at work

Nieng Yan
Nieng Yan. Photo by Denise Applewhite
Nieng Yan, Princeton's Shirley M. Tilghman Professor of Molecular Biology, and Nan Yao, senior research scholar, Princeton Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials, and director, Imaging and Analysis Center, will lead the development of a new twist on a powerful technique, known as cryo-electron microscopy, to observe the workings of channels in the cell membrane that control the flow of charged atoms, or ions. To see these tiny structures using cryo-EM, researchers must first separate the proteins from the cell membranes, but this step destroys the ability to respond to electrical signals. Yan and her team plan to restore the electrical responsiveness by innovating a thin conductive film that will lie under the proteins and provide a voltage. The goal is to learn more about how the channels behave, giving insights into the development of treatments for conditions including chronic pain, epileptic seizures and cardiac arrhythmias.


Building better faces for use in psychology research

Alexander Todorov
Alexander Todorov. Photo by Sameer Khan
Alexander Todorov, professor of psychology, will apply big data and artificial intelligence to boost the realistic quality of computer-generated human faces for studies of how we perceive factors such as trustworthiness and competence as well as emotions such as anger and sadness. Insights into how we form social impressions from faces could help reduce appearance-based discrimination and tackle issues of fairness in society. The research team, which includes Stefan Uddenberg, postdoctoral research fellow in the Princeton Neuroscience Institute; Joshua Peterson, a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Computer Science; and Jordan Suchow, assistant professor at Stevens Institute of Technology, hopes ultimately to develop an online application so that researchers can tune specific qualities to create highly realistic and diverse faces that can be used widely in psychology research.


Defending the elephant seals

Andrea Graham
Andrea Graham. Photo by Sameer Khan

Bridgett vonHoldt
Bridgett vonHoldt. Photo by Sameer Khan
Andrea Graham, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, and Bridgett vonHoldt, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, will explore how northern elephant seals are able to resist most viruses and bacteria, yet are highly susceptible to a certain parasitic worm. The robust immune system is remarkable given that the seals survived near extinction in the 1900s, which depleted their genetic diversity, including genes considered essential for fighting off pathogens. The team, which includes Frances Gulland of the University of California-Davis and the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California, will collect blood from healthy and parasite-infected seals to explore the genes and regulatory pathways that underlie immune responses, with the aim of uncovering how the seals maintain health despite depleted genetic diversity.