Princeton University

School of Engineering & Applied Science

Funds spur innovation and benefit for society

March 1, 2019

By Molly Sharlach, for the Office of Engineering Communications

A new method to combat antibiotic resistance; a way to use computer science to limit misinformation; and a plan to better understand the impacts of land use and climate change on flooding are among 19 projects awarded Innovation Research Grants this year through the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Funded by Princeton alumni, parents and other donors, the awards support early-stage, pioneering research in areas such as health, data science and the environment. This year’s awards, which total more than $1.9 million, include:

Helen Shipley Hunt Fund

Made possible by Helen Shipley Hunt, who earned a master’s degree in mathematics from Princeton in 1971, this fund supports research aimed at improving human health, with a focus on applied projects.

Mark Brynildsen, an associate professor of chemical and biological engineering, was awarded a grant to investigate a method of altering bacterial cell membranes to make the cells more susceptible to nitric oxide — a potential alternative strategy to fight infections in the face of growing antibiotic resistance.

Peter Jaffe, the William L. Knapp ’47 Professor of Civil Engineering, and associate research scholar Shan Huang will examine the potential of bacteria to clean up groundwater contaminated with toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAs, which have been used in a wide variety of consumer products since the 1950s.

researchers in the field

Peter Jaffe's research team explores how bacteria can clean groundwater

Celeste Nelson, a professor of chemical and biological engineering, will study how nifedipine, a drug used to halt preterm labor, may influence fetal lung development through potential effects on smooth muscle cells.

Howard Stone, the Donald R. Dixon ’69 and Elizabeth W. Dixon Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, will work with molecular biology professors Bonnie Bassler and Ned Wingreen to build on the group’s recently developed approach for removing bacterial biofilms from surfaces such as medical devices, and search for compounds that enhance biofilm removal.

Forese, Wilke and O’Brien Family Funds

The Forese, Wilke and O’Brien families each established funds to support innovative research in human health.

This year, the funds were awarded to Professor of Electrical Engineering Jason Fleischer, who plans to design a scanning device to automate medical examination of the feet, with the aim of helping primary care physicians detect early signs of diabetes.

Project X Fund

Project X funding enables Princeton engineering faculty members to pursue exploratory research geared toward “creativity, tinkering and risk-taking.” The fund is made possible by G. Lynn Shostack in honor of her late husband David Gardner, a 1969 Princeton graduate.

A Project X grant will allow Sigrid Adriaenssens, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, to explore designs for reversible structures and materials, such as emergency shelters or medical prosthetics. The project builds on studies of how deformations of two-dimensional, interlaced networks of elastic rods can create novel three-dimensional, reversible structures with interesting mechanical properties.

Luc Deike, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, will extend his research on how bubbles pop to investigate aerosols produced when chemical surfactants are used to disperse oil spills. The research will inform solutions to limit the release of pollutants and pathogens to the atmosphere.

To advance deep learning systems for processing human speech, Professor of Computer Science Adam Finkelstein plans to develop a new model for the “loss function” that measures how effectively the systems learn from available data. Finkelstein’s team will gather a large dataset of human observations to build a model that accounts for human perception, enabling improvements in personalized text-to-speech and other applications.

Andrej Košmrlj, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, will create mathematical models of large deformations in growing viscoelastic tissues such as the developing brain, lungs and intestine.

Jonathan Mayer, an assistant professor of computer science and public affairs; Andrew Guess, an assistant professor of politics and public affairs; and computer science graduate student Benjamin Kaiser will build a definitive dataset of disinformation websites. As part of the project, they will study how people identify features of disinformation and make judgments about it.

Assistant Professor of Computer Science Karthik Narasimhan plans to develop domain-aware approaches to improve natural language processing in cases where large amounts of supervised data for deep learning are unavailable, with the aim of expanding possibilities for automated language processing in fields such as health care.

Chemical and biological engineering professors Sankaran Sundaresan and Bruce Koel will work with electrical engineering professor Claire Gmachl to design, construct and test a chemical reactor loaded with a heterogeneous catalyst to which photons from tunable lasers or LEDs are delivered in an efficient manner, and explore how photons can facilitate reactions under milder conditions than in typical thermal reactions.

researcher in the lab

Claire White's lab is studying the properties of "green cements." Photo by David Kelly Crow

Claire White, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, will study properties of “green cements” — building materials with the potential to help mitigate climate change by capturing carbon dioxide. She will investigate approaches to engineer the cements’ silica-rich surface layers to increase carbon mineralization.

Data Science Funds

Two funds support research in machine learning and data science, respectively — one made possible by an anonymous donor and the other established by James Mi, who earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Princeton.

This year, the first fund was awarded to Professor of Computer Science Ryan Adams, along with graduate students Jad Rahme and Samuel Barnett, for a project to improve reinforcement learning, a machine learning method that enables software agents to learn behaviors based on human-specified rewards.  The researchers are developing a framework to make it easier for designers to teach computers to perform complex behaviors.

The James Mi *91 Research Innovation Fund For Data Science will allow Miklos Racz, an assistant professor of operations research and financial engineering, to apply a new model of network disruption to understand the spread of misinformation through social networks. The project will bring together modern tools in algorithms, data science, network science and probability.

Additional Engineering Research Funds

Additional funds for innovative engineering research include funds supported by multiple anonymous donors, as well as the Yang Family Fund and the David T. Wilkinson Innovation Fund.

researcher with chip

Minjie Chen's research group is working to slash power consumption in data centers. Photo by Frank Wojciechowski

A grant from funds established by anonymous donors was awarded to Minjie Chen, an assistant professor of electrical engineering, who plans to develop advanced power electronics to reduce the energy consumption of future computing infrastructures such as data centers, which currently represent 2 percent of total energy use in the United States. By applying recent advances in semiconductor devices, magnetics and power conversion architectures, the project aims to produce a family of novel design tools that can benefit a wide range of applications.

The Yang and Wilkinson funds will support work by Barry Rand and David Wentzlaff, both associate professors of electrical engineering, to design fully biodegradable internet-of-things sensors. As these sensors are increasingly integrated with the built environment, recycling them will become nearly impossible; biodegradable semiconductors could help reduce the use of materials that leave behind toxins in the environment.

Science to Action Fund

The Science to Action Fund supports research aimed at understanding and improving freshwater conservation in the United States that bridges the gap between lab work and practical solutions.

One of this year’s grants will allow Amilcare Porporato, the Thomas J. Wu ’94 Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, to develop a framework for predicting the responses of wetlands to seasonal water fluctuations, with the goal of guiding management strategies to maximize wetland ecosystems’ positive effects — preserving biodiversity, reducing nutrient overload to rivers and coastal areas, and mitigating flood risk — while minimizing wetlands’ greenhouse methane emissions.

A second grant was awarded to James Smith, the William and Edna Macaleer Professor of Engineering and Applied Science, to examine rainfall and flooding in North Carolina’s Cape Fear River basin during recent hurricanes, providing insights into the implications of extreme floods for conservation programs. The project will analyze changes in rainfall over the past three decades, assess the impacts of land use changes on flooding, and use modeling to predict the effects of climate change.