Nine exploratory projects, from an effort to exploit inter-microbial warfare in the search for new antibiotics to the development of artificial intelligence for the transcription of ancient documents, have been selected to receive support through the Dean for Research Innovation Funds.
The new initiatives, spanning the natural sciences, humanities and collaborations with industry, are in the early stages of investigation — a time when it is typically difficult to find sources of research funding. To kick-start promising ideas, the Dean for Research Innovation Fund, now in its eighth year, provides the fuel that enables research to blaze new trails.
“Bold ideas can sometimes need a champion, someone who is willing to take a chance on funding ideas that have never been tried before, or are new in some way,” said Dean for Research Pablo G. Debenedetti, the Class of 1950 Professor of Engineering and Applied Science and a professor of chemical and biological engineering. “This funding program gives faculty members and their teams that chance.”
The program also presents the opportunity to explore new ideas in the sciences that have the potential to lead to discoveries of tremendous benefit for human health and wellbeing, a facet that attracted philanthropist Frank Richardson, Class of 1961, who was inspired early in life by pioneers who developed vaccines against polio and smallpox.
“Here is a chance to support projects that otherwise might not get off the ground and that have been curated by the best minds at Princeton University,” said Richardson, referring to the fact that a faculty-led committee selects the projects.
Richardson said he was excited to provide opportunities for students working on projects that could benefit society. “So many great insights come from younger people who may not be far enough along in their careers to qualify for federal funding,” Richardson said, “but who have the true possibility of making major breakthroughs.”
Funds have been awarded from three classes of projects: New ideas in the natural sciences, new ideas in the humanities and new industrial collaborations.
New ideas in the natural sciences
This fund supports the exploration of ideas that are at an early stage and need additional investigation prior to becoming the basis of a proposal for funding to an external agency that sponsors research. Five projects have been selected for funding this year:
Listening for the song of dark matter
Aiding the search for new antibiotics
Mapping the neurons of working memory
Predicting Antarctic ice dynamics with deep learning
Tracking RNA in living cells
New ideas in the humanities
Catalyzing scholarship on original theories as well as enduring questions, this fund aims to advance disciplines through support for activities such as conferences, new collaborations and creative work. Two projects will be funded:
Preserving Black theater histories
Creating a resource for future generations, a team from the Princeton Program in Theater will partner with the organization CLASSIX, a collective of Black theater scholars and artists, to participate in gathering and preserving histories of Black American theaters founded during the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 70s. The collaboration with CLASSIX, initiated in 2020-2021 through a Humanities Council Magic Project grant, hopes to collect oral histories of Black theater makers, to preserve and archive plays that have never been published, and to spark more meaningful relationship between theater making and the academy. CLASSIX consists of theater artists and scholars A.J. Muhammed, Arminda Thomas, Awoye Timpo, Brittany Bradford and Dominique Rider. The Princeton team will be led by Jane Cox, senior lecturer in theater in the Lewis Center for the Arts and director of Princeton’s Program in Theater.
Deciphering the past using neural networks
Researchers in Princeton and Paris will unlock the texts of manuscripts stored for centuries in a Cairo synagogue by harnessing the power of neural networks, complex algorithms that mimic the workings of the human brain. Documentary fragments found in a medieval repository known as the Cairo Geniza illuminate the daily lives of Jews and others in the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean basins. Deciphering these documents has, until now, relied on the painstaking work of scholars adept in reading Hebrew, Arabic, and medieval handwriting. Marina Rustow, Director of the Princeton Geniza Lab and the Khedouri A. Zilkha Professor of Jewish Civilization in the Near East, will collaborate with Prof. Daniel Stökl Ben-Ezra and his team at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in developing machine learning models to decipher and transcribe Geniza documents, helping make these texts available to historians and to the wider public.
New industrial collaborations
Industry often plays an essential role in identifying society’s most pressing challenges. This fund supports collaborations between scientists in industry and at Princeton, and it requires a pledge of matching funding from the company in the second year. Two projects have been selected for funding:
Boosting the energy efficiency of today’s technologies
A collaboration with EnaChip, a New Jersey-based semiconductor energy startup, aims to shrink the size and improve the energy efficiency of telecommunications, computing and power electronics systems. The expansion of data centers, cloud computing, artificial intelligence and the switch to 5G cellular communications, which draws three times more electricity than 4G networks, is driving massive increases in energy usage. Minjie Chen, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, has developed a systematic approach to reduce the size of the electronics delivering power to integrated circuits and microprocessors, and greatly reduce energy loss, enabling more compact and energy efficient systems. Chen will collaborate with EnaChip Inc. to evaluate a new system involving the company’s unique silicon integrated magnetic components and packaging techniques. The collaboration will garner input on how to deploy this new technology from industry partners including Google, Intel, and pSemi Corporation.
Detoxifying persistent chemicals
Through a collaboration with a leading chemical company, researchers at Princeton will explore a promising mechanism for breaking down long-lived contaminants in wastewater treatment plants. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which may have human health implications, contain carbon-fluorine bonds, which are some of the strongest chemical bonds in nature. Peter Jaffé, the William L. Knapp ’47 Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of civil and environmental engineering, and his team have recently shown that a species of bacterium can break the carbon-fluorine bond and biodegrade PFAS. PFAS are commonly found in biosolids from domestic and industrial wastewater treatment plants, and removing PFAS from these biosolids would benefit the environment. Jaffe will collaborate with The Chemours Company to investigate conditions under which bacteria can break down PFAS in biosolids.