The Pittsburgh Foundation

$2.1 million awarded to scientific research based at Pa. universities

Studies range from antibody function, to black holes, to how time of day influences creativity

PITTSBURGH, Pa., Jan. 19, 2021 – At a time when the need for scientific understanding of biological processes, the environment and human health is needed more than ever, The Charles E. Kaufman Foundation, a supporting organization of The Pittsburgh Foundation, is awarding $1.9 million to innovative and interdisciplinary scientific research by early-career and established scientists at Pennsylvania colleges and universities. All proposals address core principles in biology, physics and chemistry or cross the disciplinary boundaries of these fields.

To help ensure excellence in the next generation of scientific research, the Foundation is funding an additional $200,000 to studies that engage undergraduate students in hands-on science research.  

Funded projects this year include the impact of climate change on symbiosis in coral reefs, B-cell antibody response that may lead to a further understanding of autoimmune disorders, and how cell-sized robots can study the mechanisms of cellular life.

“With the coronavirus pandemic underway and a world waking up to the harmful effects of climate change, particularly on the most vulnerable among us, it’s clear that our world needs basic scientific research more than ever,” Lisa Schroeder, president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation said in announcing the grants. “It’s an honor for our Foundation to carry forth Charles Kaufman’s vision of enabling research that breaks down interdisciplinary barriers to enhance human understanding and improve quality of life.”

The fund was established in 2005 in a bequest from Charles E. Kaufman, who had a long career as a chemical engineer and later as an entrepreneur and investor. Upon his death in 2010, he left $43 million to the Foundation, of which $33 million was directed to supporting fundamental scientific research activities in chemistry, biology and physics at Pennsylvania educational institutions. Including this year’s grantmaking, the Foundation has awarded 70 grants totaling $14.7 million since 2013.

Interest from the science research sector remains high. This cycle, the advisory board reviewed 173 inquiries from scientists at 35 colleges and universities. The latest awards will support research at Allegheny College, Carnegie Mellon University, Lehigh University, Penn State and the University of Pennsylvania.

New Investigators grants fund scientists transitioning to independent appointments and to those engaged in new research. These grants empower scientists at the beginning of their careers who seek to make a mark in their fields and address core principles in biology, physics and chemistry or cross the disciplinary boundaries of these fields. New Investigator research grants of $150,000 for two years ($75,000 per year) are awarded to:

  • Katie Barott, Ph.D., assistant professor, department of biology at the University of Pennsylvania for research on “The role of cyclic AMP signaling in acid-base homeostasis of ancestral metazoans, which explores the effects of climate change on coral reefs.
  • Marc Miskin, Ph.D., assistant professor, department of electrical and systems engineering at the University of Pennsylvania for Exploring the physics of living systems with microscopic robots,” to understand the innerworkings of cellular life.
  • Carl Rodriguez, Ph.D., assistant professor, department of physics at Carnegie Mellon University for “The lives and deaths of star clusters and the gravitational waves they leave behind, “which explores the origins and demise of binary black holes.
  • Anna Schapiro, Ph.D., assistant professor, department of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania for “Mechanisms of generalization: The role of neural inhibitory processes and time of day,” to investigate which times of day are best for people to engage in creative tasks.

New Initiatives grants encourage investigators with strong research records to establish interdisciplinary collaborations requiring expertise beyond that of any single researcher and take a novel approach to the topic in question. New Initiative Grants of $300,000 over two years ($150,000 per year) are awarded to:

  • Aditya Khair, Ph.D. (PI), professor, department of chemical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, and Lauren Zarzar, Ph.D. (co-investigator), assistant professor, in the department of chemistry, at Penn State, for “Physicochemical communication between active droplets,” which will quantify communication and propulsion of active chemical droplets that seem to exhibit dynamics traditionally associated with flocks of birds or bacterial colonies.
  • Mikael Rechtsman, Ph.D. (PI),  Downsbrough Early Career Development Professor, department of physics, and Randall McEntaffer, Ph.D. (co-investigator), professor, department of astronomy and astrophysics, both at Penn State, for “Magnetizing light: from X-ray astronomy to silicon photonics,” which explores methods for making photon light particles “feel” magnetic fields.
  • Aurelia Honerkamp-Smith, Ph.D. (PI), assistant professor, department of physics, and Damien Thevenin, Ph.D. (co-investigator), associate professor, department of chemistry, both at Lehigh University for “Full sail ahead: How do cells sense and decode flow?,” which will study how cells from the inner surface of mammalian blood vessels respond to flow, which influences biological processes, such as cardiovascular health and embryonic development.
  • Maria Geffen, Ph.D. (PI), associate professor, department of otorhinolaryngology, and Jay Gottfried, Ph.D. (co-investigator), the Arthur H. Rubenstein University Professor and a Penn Integrates Knowledge professor with appointments in  the department of neurology and the department of psychology, both from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, for “Neuronal circuits for auditory-olfactory integration,” to explore how the brain synthesizes information from sound and smell.

Integrated Research-Education Grants support research that directly engages undergraduate students alongside innovative scientists engaged in basic, fundamental, hands-on research that could lead to new discoveries and peer-reviewed publications. An Integrated Research-Education Grant of $100,000 over two years ($50,000 per year) is awarded to:

  • Mark Ams, Ph.D., associate professor, department of chemistry, at Allegheny College for “Toward creating alien life: a genetic self-replicating system using chalcogen bonds,” which explores alternatives to DNA as a pathway to synthetic cells of alien origins. Experiments will be conducted by up to 16 undergraduate students under the close mentorship of the primary investigator, ensuring high-quality training for the next generation of research scientists.

In addition, two Integrated Research-Education Grants were highly rated by the Scientific Advisory Board and were awarded unrestricted funds from The Pittsburgh Foundation totaling $100,000 over two years ($50,000 per year):

  • Lisa A. Fredin, Ph.D., (co-PI), assistant professor, department of chemistry, and Elizabeth R. Young, Ph.D., (co-PI) assistant professor, department of chemistry, both at Lehigh University, for “A new chemical intuition of excited-state reactivity,” to engage undergraduates in a program to build understanding of light-initiated electron and proton transfer using both theory and experiment, which advance efforts toward a clean-energy economy.
  • Daniela Fera, Ph.D. (PI), assistant Professor, department of chemistry and biochemistry, Swarthmore College, for “Dissecting interactions of protein kinases critical to antibody production,” to study B cell immune antibody reactions to viruses and bacteria and could pave the way for learning what causes autoimmune disease.

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