The Pittsburgh Foundation

$1.8 million awarded for basic science at Pa. universities

Funded research ranges from “Dancing of the Stars” to “Eavesdropping on Ants”

PITTSBURGH, Pa., Aug. 26, 2019 – Innovative and interdisciplinary scientific research by early-career and established scientists at Pennsylvania universities has received a major boost by way of $1.8 million in new funding from The Charles E. Kaufman Foundation, a supporting organization of The Pittsburgh Foundation.

Projects covered by the eight grants include a study of the formation and evolution of large elliptical galaxies, which seem to grow by slowly cannibalizing neighboring galaxies. Another study receiving funding will explore how optogenetics – a neuroscientific technique that uses light and genetically engineered cells to study neural pathways in the brains of mice and flies – could lead to human brain studies with the intent of making progress against cancer and other brain disorders. And another grant will support a team of biology, chemistry and neuroscience researchers to delve into pheromone detection systems used by an ant species to communicate.

“Charles Kaufman was a visionary in recognizing that collaborative and interdisciplinary research could lead to huge quality-of-life improvements across the landscape of human experience,” Lisa Schroeder, president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation said in announcing the grants. “He committed his philanthropy to our Foundation to ensure that what was funded followed that vision, and I believe these grants are evidence that the Scientific Advisory Board has done just that. The funded projects offer real prospects for breakthroughs.”

When he died in 2010, Kaufman, who had a long career as a chemical engineer, and later had financial success as an entrepreneur and investor, left $50 million to the Foundation. Of that, $40 million is directed to continuing his life-long commitment to scientific research with the potential to improve human life. Including this year’s grantmaking, the Foundation has awarded 61 grants totaling $12.8 million since 2013. Interest from the science research sector remains high. This cycle, the advisory board reviewed 174 proposals from scientists at 52 colleges and universities.

The latest awards will support research at Bucknell University, Carnegie Mellon University, The Pennsylvania State University, University of Pennsylvania and the University of Pittsburgh.

Grants are awarded to New Investigators and for New Initiatives.

New Investigator grants are generally awarded to scientists transitioning to independent appointments and to those engaged in new research. The grant empowers scientists at the beginning of their careers as they seek to make a mark in their fields and address core principles in biology, physics and chemistry or that cross the disciplinary boundaries of these fields.

New Initiatives grants are awarded to encourage investigators with strong research records to establish interdisciplinary collaborations requiring expertise beyond that of any single researcher and taking a novel approach to the topic in question.

New Investigators two-year research grants totaling $150,000:

  • Huaiying Zhang, Ph.D., assistant professor, department of biological sciences, Carnegie Mellon University, for “The Physics and Chemistry of Liquid Condensation in Live Cells.”
  • Rachel Bezanson, Ph.D., assistant professor, department of physics and astronomy, University of Pittsburgh, for “Dancing of the Stars: Testing the Formation of the Largest Elliptical Galaxies.”
  • Gregory Pask, Ph.D., assistant professor, biology department, Bucknell University, for  “Eavesdropping on Ants: The Molecular Basis of Chemical Communication in Social Insects.”
  • Thomas Purdy, Ph.D., associate assistant professor, department of physics and astronomy, University of Pittsburgh, for “The Quantum Mechanics of Macroscopic Mechanical Systems.”

New Initiatives two-year research grants totaling $300,000:

  • Andrew J. Gellman, Ph.D. (PI), Thomas Lord Professor of chemical engineering, chemistry and materials science, Carnegie Mellon University, and David Waldeck, (co-investigator) professor of chemistry, University of Pittsburgh, for “Spin Chemistry as the Basis for Enantioselective Surface Chemistry.”
  • Sarah Shandera, Ph.D. (PI), associate professor of physics, Donghui Jeong, Ph.D. (co-investigator), assistant professor in astronomy & astrophysics; Chad Hanna, Ph.D. (co-investigator), associate professor of physics and of astronomy and astrophysics and Freed Early Career Professor, all at Pennsylvania State University, for “Sub-solar Mass Black Holes as a Gravitational Wave Probe of the Hidden Universe.”
  • Michael Platt, Ph.D. (PI), professor of neuroscience, psychology and marketing; Maria Geffen, Ph.D. (co-investigator), associate professor of otorhinolaryngology, neuroscience and neurology; and Brian Litt, Ph.D. (co-investigator), professor of neurology, neurosurgery and bioengineering; all from University of Pennsylvania, for “Optimizing Optogenetics in the Primate Brain.”
  • Noel Giebink, Ph.D. (PI), associate professor, department of electrical engineering, and Kenneth Knappenberger, Ph.D. (co-investigator), professor, department of chemistry, both at Pennsylvania State University, for “Polariton Chemistry.”

Note: images of select awardees may be downloaded for media use.

About the Charles E. Kaufman Foundation Fund’s Scientific Advisory Board

This group, charged with selecting grantees, is made up of seven appointed members who are experts in a diverse array of scientific fields. This year, the board includes Dr. Graham Hatfull, who serves as chair, and Dr. Jeremy Levy, both of the University of Pittsburgh; Dr. Christine Keating of Pennsylvania State University, Dr. Keith M. Derbyshire of the University at Albany, Dr. Melissa Hines of the Cornell Center for Materials Research, Dr. Ravi K. Sheth of the University of Pennsylvania and Dr. John L. Woolford of Carnegie Mellon University. Get more information about the Scientific Advisory Board.