New research projects and collaborations selected for funding from the Office of the Dean for Research

Written by
Catherine Zandonella, Office of the Dean for Research
June 17, 2024

New faculty-led projects in areas ranging from the arts and humanities to energy and the environment have been selected to receive funding from the Office of the Dean for Research.

The funds enable exploration of daring ideas and promising collaborations in ways that expand knowledge, impact society, and benefit the planet. Projects are selected via a competitive application process involving proposal reviews by anonymous peer-review panels. 

“This funding grows the capacity for researchers to investigate unconventional or untested ideas that can be difficult to fund through traditional sources,” said Dean for Research Peter Schiffer, professor of physics. “Through these funds, Princeton makes such explorations possible.”

This year, the program selected projects in five themes:

New Ideas in the Humanities

The New Ideas in the Humanities fund encourages innovative scholarship on original theories as well as enduring questions. Projects may involve the development of new ideas, working groups, conferences, technologies, datasets, expanded access to scholarly resources, or major pieces of scholarly work. The following projects were funded:

Launching the next phase of On TAP: A Theatre & Performance Studies Podcast

  • Brian Herrera, Associate Professor of Theater, Lewis Center for the Arts

Originally launched in 2016, On TAP: A Theatre and Performance Studies Podcast has become a successful, far-reaching, and pathbreaking example of what collaborative humanities scholarship can be in the era of digital and social media. This award will enable a critical scholarly assessment of the podcast’s impact and allow OnTAP’s continued production over the next two years.  

Indian Ocean trade, the global Middle Ages and the Cairo Geniza

  • Marina Rustow, Khedouri A. Zilkha Professor of Jewish Civilization in the Near East; Professor of Near Eastern Studies and History 

Several hundred letters, legal deeds, lists and accounts dating from Indian Ocean traders from 1060 to 1250 C.E. will be published online and in print in the original Arabic, Aramaic, Hebrew and Judaeo-Arabic alongside English translations. The documents, which survived in a medieval Egyptian synagogue within a larger cache known as the Cairo Geniza, provide unparalleled information about global history before European colonialism.

Program in Law & Public Policy (P*LAW) project in legal journalism 

  • Deborah Pearlstein, Director, Program in Law and Public Policy (P*LAW); Charles and Marie Robertson Visiting Professor in Law and Public Affairs

This project will bring a distinguished visiting journalist to Princeton for a two-year residence to foster innovative methods of legal journalism through original investigative research. The project will improve factual and historical research methods through the study of comparative best practices, support original interviews regarding cases of current relevance and historic significance, and disseminate findings through public events and audiovisual and archival preservation. 

New Industrial Collaborations

The New Industrial Collaborations fund fosters research collaborations between industry and academia, helping to identify challenges and aiding the transformation of discoveries. The program requires a matching contribution from a collaborating company in the second year of the project. The following project was funded:

Real-time brain-to-image reconstructions and foundation models for neuroimaging data

  • Kenneth Norman, Huo Professor in Computational and Theoretical Neuroscience; Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience; Chair, Department of Psychology
  • Sanjeev Arora, Charles C. Fitzmorris Professor in Computer Science
  • Jonathan Pillow, Professor of Princeton Neuroscience Institute
  • Uri Hasson, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience
  • Industrial Collaborator: Stability AI

Princeton scientists will collaborate with researchers at Stability AI, an open-source generative artificial intelligence (AI) company, to build a system that can visually reconstruct images based on brain activity of patients after a single fMRI brain-imaging session over a timespan of a few seconds. Such a real-time system would, with the patient’s consent, enable researchers to view the patient’s internal mental experience, providing transformative implications for basic science discovery, clinical diagnosis and treatment.

Collaborations between Artists and Scientists or Engineers

The Collaborations between Artists and Scientists or Engineers fund encourages collaborations between faculty and scholars in the arts and those in the natural sciences or engineering to promote synergistic innovations, allowing experts in seemingly unrelated fields to expand their collective knowledge in ways that benefit both disciplines. The following projects were funded:

Forever chemicals, ecological futures: A collaboration of bioremediation science and multimedia storytelling

  • José Avalos, Associate Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment
  • Allison Carruth, Professor of American Studies and the High Meadows Environmental Institute, Director of Blue Lab
  • Peter Jaffe, William L. Knapp '47 Professor of Civil Engineering, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering
  • David Reinfurt, Professor of the Practice, Visual Arts in the Lewis Center for the Arts

This collaboration connects biological and environmental engineering with science communication and visual media to engage diverse communities with the ecological ubiquity of long-lived environmental contaminants known as per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The researchers, which includes Research Associate Scholar Mansha Seth Pasricha, will combine the development of bioengineering solutions to biodegrade these forever chemicals with the production of an innovative lab-to-field series of mixed-media documentary shorts, data visualizations, and local events involving science museums, environmental justice groups, and community arts organizations to raise awareness and engage responses.

Robotic territories: A human-robot performance

This collaboration will investigate the dynamics among humans, machines, and the environment, advocating for a paradigm shift in how we understand and interact with our world through technology. The research aims to explore the complex domain of human and robotic interaction through the lens of performance, behavior, motion and representation with the investigative methods of research by design. The result of this research will be a live performance starring three robots and one human interacting in real-time using new bio-inspired artificial systems alongside augmented reality technologies and machine learning algorithms.

Sustainability of Our Planet

The Sustainability of Our Planet fund focuses on discovering, developing, and adopting sustainable solutions aimed at mitigating the effects of natural resource extraction and use, climate change, land-use change, and other human activities that degrade the environment and pollute Earth. Made possible thanks to the extraordinary vision and generosity of John McDonnell, Class of 1960, the fund is co-organized by the Office of the Dean for Research, the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, and the High Meadows Environmental Institute Innovation. The following projects were funded:

Accelerated discovery of ion-selective electrodes for industrial wastewater refining

  • Ryan Kingsbury, Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment

This project explores a new approach to reclaiming valuable metals such as copper, nickel, lead and zinc from industrial wastewater. The technology relies on a family of chemical structures known as Prussian Blue analogs (PBAs) that act as electrodes to attract and trap specific metals. The team will conduct computational screenings to identify and optimize PBA structures, and then produce the structures and test them for their ability to remove metals. The approach has the potential to minimize waste of industrial metals, enhance recycling, and reduce dependence on mining.

Agriculture to architecture: Straw building material

This project will research and test straw-based construction systems with the goal of reducing emissions of carbon dioxide from building materials while fostering economic and social benefits. An agricultural byproduct, straw is inexpensive, lightweight, fast growing, and able to sequester significant amounts of carbon when used in building construction. The team will explore technical designs for straw as both insulation and structural components in ways that lead to new forms of architecture while supporting growing construction demands.

Design of zeotype-confined amines for carbon capture in humid environments

  • Marcella LusardiAssistant Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering and the Princeton Materials Institute

Materials that capture carbon dioxide from the air could play an important role in meeting climate change goals. One promising class of adsorbent materials for carbon capture is zeolites, which afford tunability in critical properties like confinement and composition, and have demonstrated success in many commercialized technologies at scale.  This project will investigate methods of tailoring the structure and polarity of zeolites to improve their ability to capture carbon in humid environments.

Exploratory Energy Research

The Exploratory Energy Research fund exemplifies the University’s commitment to support innovative curiosity-driven energy research through new ideas and concepts aimed at finding sustainable energy solutions. The fund was established as part of Princeton’s larger Energy Research Fund. The following project was funded:

Innovative Hybrid Plasma-Electrochemical System for Efficient and Selective Green Ammonia Synthesis

  • Yiguang Ju, Robert Porter Patterson Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

This project will pioneer an environmentally friendly method for making ammonia, a chemical that can be useful in future hydrogen-based energy storage, transport and usage. The method will involve development of several technologies, including tungsten-based membranes and plasma-assisted membrane surface nitrification, which makes it possible to produce ammonia at much lower temperatures than are required for current production methods. The study will enable the efficient and sustainable synthesis of ammonia from nitrogen and water using renewable electricity.