Innovation funds propel research to improve health, computing and sustainability

Written by
Molly Sharlach, Office of Engineering Communications
April 3, 2020

The water bear, a micro-sized animal that can survive environments as extreme as the vacuum of space, could help doctors store high-value cells such as embryos and stem cells at room temperature instead of deep freezing them, which would greatly lower cost and risk. Research on this possibility is one of 11 projects awarded Innovation Research Grants by the School of Engineering and Applied Science this year.

Daniel Cohen, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and molecular biology graduate student Lisset Duran Rosario recently began investigating aspects of water bears’ biology and material properties. Focusing on desiccation proteins that allow the animals to survive in a state of dried-out, suspended animation for up to 30 years, they wondered whether the desiccation proteins might be used as a protective coating to preserve cells. Working with Eszter Posfai, an assistant professor of molecular biology who specializes in stem cells and embryonic development, the researchers will first test how the water bear’s proteins function in laboratory cell lines, with plans to expand their studies to stem cells and mouse embryos.

Innovation funds “are good for interdisciplinary work across departments, to get [preliminary] data that you wouldn’t easily be able to get otherwise,” said Cohen, who is an associated member of the CBE faculty. Posfai emphasized that it is not usually possible to obtain funding from more traditional sources for such pilot-stage projects.

Their collaboration is supported by the Helen Shipley Hunt Fund, which focuses on research aimed at improving human health. Funded by Princeton alumni, parents and other donors, this year’s Innovation Research Grants total more than $1.3 million. In addition to the Helen Shipley Hunt Fund award, they include:

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 José Avalos, an assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, to pioneer a method of growing mixed microbial cultures for the sustainable production of biofuels and other useful chemicals. Avalos’ team will apply expertise in optogenetics, a technique used to control cellular behavior with light, to fine-tune the growth rates of yeast and bacterial strains engineered to carry out different parts of biosynthetic pathways. By overcoming longstanding challenges, the project aims to increase the yields and economic viability of renewable fuels and materials.

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.

A grant from funds established by anonymous donors will support work led by Rodney Priestley, a professor of chemical and biological engineering and Princeton’s vice dean for innovation, to design lightweight, environmentally friendly fire-resistant materials. Priestley’s team plans to characterize the pore structure, fire resistance and other properties of a novel aerogel recently developed in his lab. The new material has potential applications in packaging, transportation, construction, electronics and telecommunications. The work is spearheaded by Sehmus Ozden, a postdoctoral research associate at the PRISM, co-advised with Craig Arnold, the Susan Dod Brown Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and director of PRISM. Arnold is also an associated member of the CBE faculty.