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Friday, Oct. 21, 2016

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Innovation funds awarded to support natural sciences, humanities projects and industry collaborations

Seven innovative projects have been awarded support through Princeton University's Dean for Research innovation funds. Now in its second year, the program enables faculty members to pursue bold new ideas, said Dean for Research Pablo Debenedetti, the Class of 1950 Professor in Engineering and Applied Science and professor of chemical and biological engineering. He noted that the funds were awarded following a process of anonymous peer review by a faculty committee. "Through this funding program, Princeton is providing a mechanism to support promising exploratory research," he said.

Three projects in the natural sciences will receive $200,000 each over two years and will explore original, early-stage ideas that could serve as the basis of a larger research initiative. In the humanities, two projects will receive $50,000 each to encourage innovation as well as scholarship on enduring questions in the humanities. In addition, two collaborations with biomedical engineering and neuroscience companies will receive $100,000 each for the first year; Princeton will match each company's contribution of up to $75,000 in the second year.

New ideas in the natural sciences

Garnet Chan, the A. Barton Hepburn Professor of Chemistry, and Gregory Scholes, the William S. Tod Professor of Chemistry, will study how atomic particles interact at the quantum level in order to discover new chemical reactions. This new way of thinking about chemical reactions could lead to advances in energy, medicine and industry. Their approach also could help answer open questions in chemistry: For example, researchers lack a detailed understanding of the mechanism behind certain naturally occurring chemical reactions, such as the splitting of water molecules during photosynthesis. The combination of Chan's recent theoretical work and Scholes' experimental methods will enable progress in understanding how quantum effects that involve cooperation among electrons can lead to new reaction chemistry.

In another project, Jared Toettcher and Alexander Ploss, assistant professors of molecular biology, will develop a method for controlling cell behavior in live animals that could be used to study cancer, organ development, immune-system function, and the causes and treatment of disease. Toettcher and Ploss will develop mice whose cells can be controlled through optogenetics, which involves using light to direct cell behavior. The researchers will genetically engineer cells to express light-sensitive proteins. When light is delivered to the cell via an optical fiber, these proteins will change shape and turn on the signaling pathways that control cell movement or growth. Eventually, the investigators plan to use the technique in mice to manipulate activities such as cell growth, differentiation, immune-system response and the movement of cells to new places during organ development.

For the third project, Zemer Gitai, an associate professor of molecular biology, will build "resistance-proof" antibiotics that retain their potency against bacteria. Most antibacterial drugs work by disrupting the growth of bacteria. Resistance develops when a small percentage of bacteria evolve a new way to survive, which enables them to replicate quickly and fill the population vacuum left by the killed-off non-resistant bacteria. Gitai will seek to discover and test possible drug candidates that stop infection without disrupting growth, such as by targeting the machinery for infecting new cells. Such a drug would stop infection but allow bacteria to grow normally. While some bacteria would still evolve drug resistance, they would lack a growth advantage over their neighbors and remain a small percentage of the overall population. As a result, the drug would remain potent at stopping infection.

New ideas in the humanities

Sarah Chihaya, assistant professor of English, Joshua Kotin, assistant professor of English, and Kinohi Nishikawa, assistant professor of English and the Center for African American Studies, will bring together scholars and writers from across literary and cultural studies at a conference titled "The Contemporary: Literature in the Twenty-First Century." The conference will explore how to define the current literary period and the concept of "contemporaneity" itself. Much debate exists over when the present period began — was it the end of World War II, the end of the Cold War, the start of the millennium, or Sept. 11, 2001? The project aims to create a dialogue that involves recent literary texts, such as novels, poems and comics, in the context of recent developments in culture, politics, science, technology and education. The conference is intended to spark the development of a scholarly network representing a range of disciplines and theoretical approaches, and establish Princeton as a leading institution in contemporary literature.

For the second humanities project, Martin Kern, Princeton's Greg ('84) and Joanna (P13) Zeluck Professor in Asian Studies, will make Princeton the new home of an essential resource for the study of classical Chinese, the Thesaurus Linguae Sericae (TLS). Developed by Professor Christoph Harbsmeier at the University of Oslo and currently housed in Heidelberg, Germany, the TLS contains more than 180,000 pages of Chinese text and English translations. With additional support from the Department of East Asian Studies and the Program in East Asian Studies, the project includes building a new online interface with an open-source format, making the Princeton-housed thesaurus a powerful research tool for scholars around the globe. The TLS eventually will be integrated with Princeton's WordNet database to connect the vocabulary and grammar of classical Chinese with modern Chinese, English and the many other languages already in the database. In addition to its scholarly uses, the thesaurus will serve as a tool to train graduate students in skills needed for work in the growing area of digital humanities.

New research collaborations with industry

Robert Prud'homme, professor of chemical and biological engineering, will explore ways to improve nanoparticles for use as drug delivery systems. For effectiveness and safety, nanoparticles must remain in the body long enough to deliver a drug but be cleared out when they are no longer useful. To design and evaluate nanoparticles for medical applications, Prud'homme's lab will work with two start-up companies: Philadelphia-based Optofluidics Inc., which makes a technology known as the "NanoTweezer" that can enable analysis of the surface of a single particle; and Optimeos Life Sciences LLC, which develops nanoparticles for medical imaging and therapeutic purposes.

Kai Li, the Paul M. Wythes '55 P86 and Marcia R. Wythes P86 Professor in Computer Science, and Sebastian Seung, professor of computer science and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, will collaborate with the Intel Corporation to speed up the computation time involved in deep learning, a form of machine learning with the capacity to tackle modeling of the brain and other complex systems. The researchers will design and deploy computer software that can identify structures in high-resolution two-dimensional images, and find neuron structures in three-dimensional images. The technology also will enable the researchers to decode human brain functions by analyzing four-dimensional brain voxel data, or volumes of brain that change over the dimension of time.

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