The Pittsburgh Foundation

$1.8 million for science research goes to Pa. universities

PITTSBURGH, Pa, Feb. 27, 2024 – Detecting Earth-like planets orbiting stars and learning how bacteria initiate or exit biofilm communities are two research projects receiving a 2023 grant from The Charles E. Kaufman Foundation. A total of $1.8 million has been awarded for innovative, interdisciplinary scientific research at Pennsylvania universities. Grants are awarded in two categories: New Investigator research and New Initiative research.

One of the New Investigator research projects will look at synaptic aging and its impact on memory. According to Principal Investigator Victor Luna, Ph.D., synapses are the biological bases for all cognition. However, much of our understanding of mammalian synapses is based on studies from young and middle-aged animals. Little has been established on the physiology of synapses in the aged brain, which would be completely different due to biological hallmarks of aging. Luna’s research aims to fill in knowledge gaps which could ultimately lead to insights on treating conditions such as dementia.

The foundation was established in 2005 through a $43 million bequest from Charles E. Kaufman, who had a long career as a chemical engineer and later as an entrepreneur and investor. At his death in 2010, his fortune went to The Pittsburgh Foundation, and $33 million was endowed to support fundamental scientific research in chemistry, biology and physics at Pennsylvania institutions. Including this year’s grantmaking, the Kaufman Foundation has awarded 99 grants totaling $20.4 million since 2013.

The scientific advisory board reviewed 104 inquiries from scientists at 20 colleges and universities. The latest awards will support research at Carnegie Mellon University, Drexel University, Gettysburg College, The Pennsylvania State University, Temple University and University of Pennsylvania. 

New Investigator research grants empower scientists at the beginning of their careers to advance 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 up to $150,000 over two years are awarded to:

  •  Andrew Bridges, Ph.D., principal investigator, assistant professor, biology department at Carnegie Mellon University, for “Exploring the inter-species interactions controlling bacterial biofilm formation.” This research will determine how bacteria acts in relation to biofilm communities. These are multicellular formations that allow bacteria to survive as a group.  The proposal is to determine how bacteria make lifestyle decisions in realistic conditions that approximate the environments in which they naturally grow. The ideal outcome would be a greater understanding of how bacterial cell-to-cell signaling pathways function in complex communities to shape the living microbiomes in and around us. Eventually, researchers hope to exploit the signal integration components that are characterized in order to control bacterial behavior “on demand.”
  • Natasha Gownaris, Ph.D., principal investigator, assistant professor, environmental studies department at Gettysburg College for “Behavioral plasticity as a mechanism for adaptation in rapidly changing environments.” This research will attempt to fill in key knowledge gaps regarding the causes and consequences of behavioral plasticity in long-lived species, providing insight into their capacity for adaptation and resilience to climate change. For many species, evolution is unlikely to keep pace with these changes. Behavioral plasticity is the ability of an organism to alter its behavior in response to the environment. It may buy time for evolution to occur but there is still a lack of understanding about what drives plasticity and of how plasticity influences population persistence. This project leverages long-term and field-collected datasets on tern, Atlantic puffin and black guillemot, as well as datasets on the foraging behavior of over 100 seabird species. It is expected that approaches developed through this research will lead to more accurate predictions of population responses to rapidly changing environments.
  • Ezra Clark, Ph.D., principal investigator, assistant professor, chemical engineering department at The Pennsylvania State University for “Elucidating the mechanism of cation promotion in electrocatalytic processes.” This project aims to directly quantify the impact of cation (positively charged ion) identity on electroacatalytic performance parameters under reaction conditions for the first time. Electrocatalysis enables chemical transformations to be directly driven by renewable electricity, but the energy conversion efficiency of many electrocatalytic processes is insufficient for industrial use. The results of this research could help to design electrocatalytic systems with superior energy conversion efficiency, facilitating the commercial implementation of electrocatalytic technologies and easing the environmental burden of the chemical industry.
  • Victor Luna, Ph.D., principal investigator, assistant professor, neuroscience department at Temple University for “Investigating synaptic aging and its impact on memory,” which will begin to fill critical gaps in knowledge by providing fundamental insights into the landmark changes in synaptic composition and physiology that occur during the course of normal aging in outbred laboratory mice. Synapses are the biological basis for all cognition. However, much of the understanding of mammalian synapses is based on studies from young and middle-age animals. The research will establish a framework for identifying the distinct set of principles that govern synaptic aging and develop novel approaches for understanding cognitive dysregulation due to disorders of aging such as late-life depression and dementia.

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 up to $300,000 over two years are awarded to:

  • Linda Peteanu, Ph.D., principal investigator, professor, chemistry department and Rongchao Jin, Ph.D., co-investigator, professor, chemistry department, both from Carnegie Mellon University for “Atomically precise metal nanoclusters and their assemblies as ‘ideal’ quantum emitters.” This project’s goal is to develop a new class of materials: Atomically precise metal nanoclusters containing more than one element and having both a precise number of total atoms and atomic composition. Semiconductor and metallic nanoparticles have received significant attention across the scientific community in recent decades and have reached the point of commercial applications in areas as diverse as biological labeling and high-definition displays. One new area in which their use is now being tested is optical quantum computing. As it develops, this technology promises to revolutionize nearly every area of science. The field of photonics-based quantum computing and cryptography requires the development of thermally stable, single quantum state emitters. This has been a longstanding fundamental goal in the fields of synthetic chemistry and materials science.
  • Cullen Blake, Ph.D., principal investigator, assistant professor, physics department at the University of Pennsylvania and Eric Ford, Ph.D., co-investigator, distinguished professor, astronomy department at The Pennsylvania State University, for “Next-generation techniques for analyzing precise radial velocity data.” This proposal is to develop new algorithms that will employ machine learning techniques to measure better stellar radial velocities by removing the effects of the Earth’s atmosphere. The purpose is to get closer to detecting planets like Earth orbiting nearby stars. The next big leap forward in our ability to detect and characterize potentially Earth-like extrasolar planets will come from developing new methods for analyzing data that has been gathered recently.
  • Randall Kamien, Ph.D., principal investigator, professor, physics department at the University of Pennsylvania and Genevieve Dion, Ph.D., professor, design department at Drexel University for “Non-isometric origami.” This project aims to address the problem of the self-folding and mechanical properties of knit fabrics. Theoretical understanding of soft materials often relies upon models that apply at lengthscales and timescales many times larger than those of their molecular constituents. Though knitting is an age-old technique for creating textiles, its properties have not yet been successfully modeled in silico, as have so many of our modern materials. Here, researchers will study the mechanics, folding and response of knit materials using principles of soft matter and, at the same time, will use a general, geometric framework to develop a completely new approach to quantitatively model fabric.
  • Megan Matthews, Ph.D., principal investigator, assistant professor, chemistry department; Dr. Donald O’Rourke, co-investigator, professor, neurosurgery department; Dr. Zev Binder, Ph.D., co-investigator, research assistant professor, neurosurgery department; and Robert Bowman, Ph.D., co-investigator, assistant professor, cancer biology department, all at the University of Pennsylvania for “Identification of cofactor-dependent enzymes driving cell growth and differentiation.” Researchers have developed and pioneered Reverse- Polarity Activity-Based Protein Profiling (RP-ABPP) which, for the first time, enables the mapping of enzyme activities regulated by ‘environment-sensitive’ cofactors on a proteome-wide scale. This study will be the first landscape of enzyme activity governed by cellular microenvironment in aberrant cell growth and development. Due to the pervasive influences of the local cellular environments across cancer types numerous homeostatic/developmental settings, the researchers anticipate their studies will have a broad impact across many domains of biomedical sciences.