The Pittsburgh Foundation

$2 million awarded for scientific research at Pa. universities

Supported projects include an effort to model the impact of dark matter on the era when the first stars and galaxies formed, and an investigation into the role of genetic background on evolution

PITTSBURGH, Pa, Jan. 17, 2023 – The Charles E. Kaufman Foundation has announced $2 million in grants for innovative, interdisciplinary scientific research at Pennsylvania universities. 

The scope of research in the 10 proposals stretches back to the formation of the first stars and galaxies and narrows to individual cells in the human body.

One of the projects will examine bacterial contamination on a “self-cleaning carpet of cilia.” Cilia, the whip-like organelles beat rapidly to generate flows that move microbes and debris up and out of the airways. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, human airway pathologies were the third-leading cause of deaths worldwide. The research will examine whether artificial, magnetic cilia could serve as a self-cleaning coating material capable of preventing bacterial contamination in biomedical devices. 

The fund was established in 2005 through a $43 million bequest from Charles E. Kaufman, who followed his long career as a chemical engineer as an entrepreneur and investor. Upon his death in 2010, he left his fortune to the Foundation, of which $33 million was endowed to support fundamental scientific research in chemistry, biology and physics at Pennsylvania institutions. Including this year’s grantmaking, the Foundation has awarded 91 grants totaling $18.6 million since 2013.

The scientific advisory board reviewed 128 inquiries from scientists at 39 colleges and universities. The latest awards will support research at the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, The University of Pennsylvania, Haverford College, West Chester University, Chatham University, Dickinson College and Pennsylvania State University. 

New Investigator research grants empower scientists at the beginning of their careers to seek to make a mark in their fields and address core principles in biology, physics and chemistry or across the disciplinary boundaries of these fields. New Investigator research grants of $150,000 over two years ($75,000 per year) are awarded to:

  • Sean Buskirk, Ph.D., principal investigator, assistant professor, biology department at West Chester University, for “Exploring the impact of genetic background on adaptive evolution,” which will initiate and propagate many replicate populations of closely related bacteria in a controlled environment, whereby evolution can be “replayed” over and over. This research will combine experimental evolution with comparative genomics and transcriptomics to investigate how genetic background affects bacterial adaptation to a common selective pressure.
  • Arnold Mathijssen, Ph.D., principal investigator, assistant professor, department of astronomy and physics at The University of Pennsylvania, for “Bacterial contamination dynamics on self-cleaning magnetic carpets,” which aims to understand respiratory pathogen clearance using a controllable “active carpet” of magnetic artificial cilia. This research will microfabricate a lung-on-a-chip device with magnetic artificial cilia to unravel how these cilia influence bacterial contamination dynamics and biofilm formation. 
  • Simranjeet Singh, Ph.D., principal investigator, assistant professor, physics department at Carnegie Mellon University, for “Probing quantum spin liquid state (QSL), in van der Waals-based systems via spin flux and spin dynamics.” There are dramatic examples of emergent phenomena in QSL that could have an important role in theories describing high-transition-temperature superconductors and may have applications in quantum information science. Quantum Information Science (QIS) is an emerging field with the potential to cause revolutionary advances in fields of science and engineering involving computation, communication, precision measurement and fundamental quantum science.
  • V. Ashley Villar, Ph.D., principal investigator, assistant professor, astrophysics and astronomy department at Pennsylvania State University, for “Unveiling the final days of stellar life through exotic explosions,” which brings together expertise in high-energy physics and machine learning/statistics to illuminate the final tumultuous years of stars’ lives. Researchers will conduct a statistical study of the largest sample of stars, modeling their broadband light as a function of time. This will result, for the first time, in a statistical understanding of the energetics of the supernova explosions as well as the geometry of the mass loss.

New Initiatives research grants encourage investigators with strong research records to establish interdisciplinary collaborations requiring expertise beyond that of any single researcher and to 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:

  • Andrea Berman, Ph.D., principal investigator, associate professor, biological sciences department and Judith Yanowitz, Ph.D., co-investigator, associate professor, obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences department, both from The University of Pittsburgh for “Translation regulation of TMG-capped mRNAs – an evolutionary remnant of trans-splicing?” The project goal is to identify the key molecules that worms and humans use to determine what proteins are made in specific cells, and then dissect how these proteins exert control at the molecular level. The research is expected to provide greater understanding of the evolution of this mechanism over hundreds of millions of years. It could identify new treatment directions for parasitic infections and diseases impacting humans, pets and livestock.
  • Daniel Grin, Ph.D., principal investigator, assistant professor, department of physics and astronomy at Haverford College and Adam Lidz, Ph.D., co-investigator associate professor, department of astronomy and physics at The University of Pennsylvania, for “Dark matter and the first galaxies,” which will model the impact of dark matter properties (e.g. the mass of the dark matter particle or the strength of its interactions with other particles) on the era when the first stars and galaxies formed.
  • Alex Jones, Ph.D., principal investigator, associate professor, engineering department and Michael Hatridge, Ph.D., co-investigator, associate professor, physics department, both at The University of Pittsburgh, for “Quantum qubit and architecture co-design for high-fidelity quantum computing,” which combines the scientist’s physics and computer science expertise to collaboratively design the physical entanglement of qubits, i.e., quantum gates, while considering their computational capability and fidelity. There are three aims: To develop a design space exploration tool based on the quantum gates achievable from particular quantum qubit interaction; to experimentally demonstrate, tune and characterize the best gates determined from design space exploration with real qubit hardware using new tuning approaches, thereby cutting the need to fabricate new hardware; and finally, to study a perfect entangling three-qubit basis gate, collaboratively conceived by the investigators.
  • Benjamin Lear, Ph.D., principal investigator, associate professor, chemistry department and Raymond Schaak, Ph.D., co-investigator, professor, chemistry department, both at Pennsylvania State University for “Nanoscale optical heating for the generation of high entropy nanomaterials,” which explores a nascent, yet promising class of nanoscale alloy known as high entropy alloys. These alloys create new materials properties and behaviors by combining five or more elements together in a random arrangement in a crystal with nanometer-scale dimensions. The large number of possible arrangements of these different atoms produces what is known as a high-entropy state. At present, only a few types of nanoscale high entropy alloys have been made, but they have shown great promise as catalysts for reactions that are poised to transform many application areas. 

Integrated Research-Education (IREG) 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. Integrated Research-Education Grants of $100,000 over two years ($50,000 per year) are awarded to:

  • William Pfalzgraff, Ph.D., principal investigator, assistant professor, chemistry department at Chatham University, for “Controlling catalytic selectivity with external electric fields,” which seeks to develop new approaches to optimize catalysts by providing a theoretical framework that explains how one can precisely control what is produced in a chemical reaction using externally applied electric fields. This work will also engage a diverse group of undergraduates in research and provide training in theory, simulation and experiment-theory collaboration. This research will advance fundamental understanding of selectivity in catalysis and has the potential to provide a new method for tuning reactivity in solution.
  • Michael Roberts, Ph.D., principal investigator, associate professor, biology department, and Jeffrey Forrester, Ph.D., co-investigator, associate professor, mathematics department, both at Dickinson College for “Reprogramming acute myeloid leukemia cells toward cell cycle arrest and death,” in which researchers will exploit the availability of RAS-driven AML cell lines to investigate how hyperactive RAS signaling can be shut down by genetically altering the leukemic program of gene expression. In the high-mortality cancer, RAS is a commonly mutated gene encoding a growth-signaling protein that becomes hyperactive. Oncogenic RAS mutations are responsible for approximately 20% of all human cancers.