Momentum Funds 2023-2024 Awardees

Scaling Grants 

These grants support the detailed project planning, gathering of proof-of-concept results, and reduction of technical risk so that teams can competitively pursue large, complex extramural funding. Congratulations to this year's awardees! ​

Alison Sanders: The Rust to Resilience (R2R) Environmental Chemical Research Center

Team members include: 

Alison Sanders (team lead), Department of Environmental & Occupational Health

Additional team members are from the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering and the Department of Geology & Environmental Sciences

Abstract: The Rust to Resilience (R2R) Environmental Chemical Research Center at the University of Pittsburgh is a new center that will leverage epidemiologic, toxicologic, environmental science, and engineering expertise to examine two major classes of ubiquitous chemicals that predominate the ~100 Pennsylvania (PA) Superfund sites statewide and are detected ubiquitously among human populations: metals and per/poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The overarching goal of the R2R Center is to characterize the prevalence, adverse health effects, and chronic disease mechanisms of the most prevalent legacy and emerging toxicants in populations, waterways, and soil in PA, while developing novel remediation strategies. We will assess geospatial associations of these chemicals and their mixtures in PA soils and waters with adverse maternal cardiometabolic health outcomes before and after delivery, as well as employ novel methods for the remediation of mixtures and mixture components from soil and water. Our Center’s proposed synergies will provide urgent action-oriented guidance to improve public health and establish new tools to better understand and reduce the environmental risks to vulnerable populations in PA and globally. Our Center will provide broadly applicable roadmaps to safely transition from rust to resilient and sustainable regional, national, and global public health.

Alberto Vazquez: Establishing Next-Generation Intracortical Microstimulation for Research and Clinical Applications 

Team members include: 

Alberto Vazquez (team lead), Department of Radiology

Additional team members are from the Department of Bioengineering, the Department of Neurobiology, the Department of Neuroscience, and the Department of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation

Abstract: Electrical stimulation is one of the most widely used tools for modulating brain activity for scientific discovery and clinical applications. Experiments in small animals are used to inform eventual translation to humans for research or clinical purposes. A major challenge with electrical stimulation is determining how knowledge gained in one species or model system translates to other species with different neural circuits, cortical organization, and size. Unless this barrier is removed, we will lack the knowledge required to achieve the full potential of electrical stimulation as an investigative tool of neural mechanisms in healthy brains, as a treatment for diseased brains, and as a neural interface. Here, we propose to challenge these barriers by investigating how the effects of intracortical microstimulation (ICMS) in sensorimotor cortex scale across three common species with distinctive brain sizes: humans, non-human primates and mice. Two major questions animate our proposal: (1) How does ICMS activate cells and circuits in the cortex? (2) How does activation of these cells and circuits drive behavior and perception? We formed a team that brings together the expertise and infrastructure needed to conduct integrated experiments in humans with implanted microelectrodes, in NHPs and mice with genetic, optical, and microelectrode tools.

Teaming Grants 

These grants support the early-stage planning and capacity building of large multidisciplinary projects. Congratulations to this year's awardees! 

Reivian Berrios Barillas: Artificial Intelligence Integrated in Learning of Rehabilitation Science Skills

Team members include: 

Reivian Berrios Barillas (team lead), Department of Physical Therapy

Additional team members are from the Department of Informatics and Networked Systems; the Department of Psychology; the Department of Physical Therapy; and the Department of Teaching, Learning, and Leading

Abstract: Can artificial intelligence (AI) improve the learning experience for the next generation of physical therapy students? Occupations for physical therapists are expected to grow 15%, which is much faster than the average job growth. The University of Pittsburgh is committed to providing for this need by adding a hybrid Doctor of Physical Therapy program and admitted its third cohort this year. However, it is unknown if the didactic education given was adequate for these students and will continue to be sufficient. Using AI with hybrid learning, we will investigate students’ academic performances and learning perceptions with intelligent tutoring systems in a human anatomy course. This course is critical for many subsequent courses and provides essential knowledge that influences students’ clinical abilities. The team will evaluate various AI mechanisms for tracking time spent on difficult concepts for high- and low-achieving students and creating intelligent textbooks with ChatGPT to provide feedback. Predictive AI models will be integrated with visual dashboards for the instructor and student to assist each student in understanding the best progression for personalized learning. This project develops the infrastructure for intelligent mechanisms that can assist in early detection of knowledge gaps and facilitate early remediation.

Kyaien Conner: Creating Synergies and Collaborations to Advance Race-Based Research at the University of Pittsburgh

Team members include: 

Kyaien Conner (team lead), Department of Social Work

Additional team members are from the Department of Africana Studies; the Department of Anthropology; The Department of Educational Foundations, the Department of Organization & Policy; the Department of Epidemiology; and the Department of Social Work 

Abstract: How can the University of Pittsburgh lead the charge with respect to race-based research? Racism continues to be one of America's longest-standing social problems, and inequities related to race remain pervasive. Pitt’s Strategic Plan describes enhancing justice, diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. One strategy to address this priority is through the conduct of rigorous empirical research that systematically studies the impact of race and racism on critical outcomes (within the University system and in the community at large) and evaluates innovative solutions. Home to six academic centers with a racial equity lens spanning the disciplines, Pitt is well-situated to be the epicenter for race-based research in the US. This proposal leverages Directors/Associate Directors of the race-based centers across Pitt for strategic planning and visioning (identify common goals, priorities and areas of research synergy) research team development (creation of multidisciplinary teams to work on proposal development), mentorship and support from program officers (attain guidance toward the development of competitive external empirical research and pipeline education/training grants) and the development of a race-related research database (create a localized repository of race-related research and scholarship that will further amplify the work of local race-based research and create meaningful connections to external race-based researchers).

Michael Lotze: Pittsburgh Deep Learning Triangulum

Team members include: 

Michael Lotze (team lead), Department of Surgery

Additional team members are from the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering, the Department of Immunology, and the Department of Psychology/LRDC

This project is aligned with the themes of the Year of Discourse and Dialogue.

Abstract: Discourse and dialogue between the fields of immunology, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence has the potential to generate breakthroughs in our understanding and development of new deep learning methods and their biological as well as clinical applications to diseases with substantial unmet clinical need including cancer and Alzheimer’s. The award will be used to launch the Pittsburgh Deep Learning Triangulum (PDLT), a truly unique constellation of faculty whose interests in the immune system (IS), nervous system (NS), and artificial intelligence (AI) converge on biological and computational systems, evolved, or designed to capture, process, and act on diverse types of information. Such learning can be retained as memory for recall responses and used to explore previously unencountered contexts. Biological and artificial learning systems are strongly dependent on complex cellular interactions including neural networks as well as co-evolving microbiomes. By coalescing relevant Pitt and CMU colleagues and stimulating vigorous dialogue, the group will identify the most challenging problems in learning and the neuroimmune as well as AI interfaces whose solutions would be transformative. The PDLT will develop stakeholder relationships with sponsors such as the Chan-Zuckerberg Foundation, ARPA-H, Wellcome Leap, or the Allen Institute to enable new frameworks for deep learning and their applications

Priming Grants

These grants (formerly Seeding) provide up to $25,000 per year and support significant and innovative scholarship by individual or small groups of faculty at all ranks at the University of Pittsburgh. In constructing each year’s portfolio of awards, attention is given to supporting early career faculty and areas where opportunities for extramural funding are extremely limited. Proposals are reviewed in four tracks: Creative Arts, Performing Arts and Humanities; Engineering, Technology, Natural Sciences, and Mathematical Sciences; Health and Life Sciences; and Social Sciences, which includes business, policy, law, education, and social work. Congratulations to this year's awardees! 

Elizabeth Monasterios: Understanding Death in the Andes. Indigenous and Western Conceptions of Life, Death, and Religiosity, 16th-21st Centuries

Team members include: 

Elizabeth Monasterios (team lead), Department of Hispanic Languages & Literatures

 An additional team member is from the Department of Hispanic Languages & Literatures

Abstract: “Understanding Death in the Andes. Indigenous and Western Conceptions of Life, Death, and Religiosity, 16th21st Centuries” explores Andean ideas and practices about death vis-à-vis Western philosophical traditions. Iberian accounts of the conquest and colonization of the Inca Empire abound in descriptions of Andean religiosity and dead-living interactions. Early modern clergymen and chroniclers repeatedly pointed out that the most notable thing in this part of the New World were the funerary customs and the love with which the dead were treated as if they were still alive. Fascinating and disturbing, these practices challenged Christian theology and politics. Our project recovers these baffling practices in terms of ontological questions that continue challenging the legacy of Enlightenment’s humanism. Together with an international research team we’ll work on a book that parting company with scholarship from the social sciences about death in the Andes, which often fails to discuss its potential to trigger theological-philosophical conversations with the West, fosters and deepens them. Elizabeth Monasterios extensive scholarship on Andean ontologies, and Gonzalo Lamana’s recent finding and analysis of a never-seen-before colonial manuscript, and in fact the earliest colonial text about death in the Andes, provides a strong foundation upon which to embark on this project.

Marta Ortega-Llebaria: Dialogue, Discourse and Diversity: Changing Social Judgements through Listening Effort

Team members include:

Marta Ortega-Llebaria (team lead),  Department of Linguistics

Additional team members are from the Department of Psychology/LRDC and the Department of UPG

This project is aligned with the themes of the Year of Discourse and Dialogue.

Abstract: Teachers and nurses working in the community are likely to encounter varied accents and dialects. Unfamiliar accents often demand heightened listening effort, potentially reducing perceptions of speaker competence. Encouragingly, a recent Nature Report (Rovetti et al. 2023) suggests that increased exposure to such accents decreases listening effort and positively influences judgments of speaker competence, carrying substantial implications for social justice. However, further research is imperative to comprehensively grasp the factors affecting listening effort, necessary for developing effective tools against language discrimination. Here, we test two pivotal factors–listeners' language ideologies and attitudes–and their impact on both perceived and actual listening effort in the context of education and nursing students at the Greensburg campus. These students have limited exposure to non-native speakers compared to their Oakland peers but will serve increasingly diverse populations susceptible to accent-based bias. We aim to elucidate how training influences students' listening effort, social judgments, and the evolution of their ideologies and attitudes while pinpointing which students benefit most from this training. This study also merges Professor Marks' dedication to enhancing diversity education at the Greensburg campus with ongoing research by Professors Fraundorf and Ortega-Llebaria on our perception of individuals with non-standard accents.

Aakash Gautam: Enhancing Reentry Support Programs through Community-Based Participatory Action Research

Aakash Gautam, Department of Computer Science

Abstract: How can we co-design support structures centered on digital literacy and financial well-being to empower returning citizens (formerly incarcerated individuals) in their reentry journey? Our previous research highlighted the multifaceted challenges that returning citizens face during their reentry journey, including support programs that prioritize supervision over service, unresponsive support systems, limited access to resources, financial struggles exacerbated by restricted employment opportunities, and technological barriers. Such structural issues call into question our society's ability to truly provide second chances to returning citizens. We propose to undertake a participatory action research approach, working with local non-profits, Pitt’s Community Engagement Center, educators, and returning citizens in designing socio-technical approaches to assist returning citizens in Western Pennsylvania during their reentry journey. The Momentum Fund is pivotal in enabling us to (1) collaborate closely with community partners in and around Pittsburgh, (2) develop digital tools and accompanying learning materials to bolster ongoing reentry support efforts, and (3) evaluate our approach, laying the groundwork for potential scalability through larger federal grants. Our commitment of engaging with local organizations and community members aligns with Pitt’s values as well as the Year of Discourse and Dialogue initiative.

In Hee Lee: Innovating Small-Animal Monitoring for a Sustainable Future

In Hee Lee, Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering

Abstract: Ecosystem services worth $130 trillion annually are jeopardized by climate change and human activities. To secure these benefits for future generations, we need effective action. Monitoring wild animal behavior is vital for assessing ecosystem health, especially for smaller creatures sensitive to environmental shifts. However, current monitoring technology is primarily tailored for larger animals, lacking the capacity to track their smaller counterparts effectively. Therefore, a urgent need exists to create a specialized miniature system for smaller animals. Without this tool, we risk missing crucial data, leading to misguided conservation decisions. Our long-term objective is to develop highly effective small-animal monitoring systems. The overall objective of this proposal centers on creating a reliable and energy-efficient semiconductor sensing system for butterflies and frogs. We hypothesize that we can achieve system reliability by optimizing at various levels (circuitry, system design, and application). This research represents a departure from conventional approaches, placing a strong emphasis on design optimization to enhance both reliability and energy efficiency. The expected outcomes encompass the development of a novel miniature system catering to butterflies and frogs. These achievements will markedly augment our capacity to gauge the impact of climate change and human activities on ecosystems.

Guanyi Lu: Measuring the Shear Creep Characteristics of Rocks through Novel Laboratory Experiments

Guanyi Lu, Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering

Abstract: Recent advancements in subsurface fluid injection, such as CO2 sequestration and Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS), for global energy transition towards more sustainable futures have emphasized the need for a better understanding on injection-induced stresses and the associated geo-hazards. A critical indicator leading to large scale earthquakes and seismic events is the shear stress developed in underground fault systems. The frictional behavior of faults in rocks is well-known to follow a time-dependent rate-and-state friction law in response to the shear stress acting on the fault plane. However, the time-dependent anisotropic creep characteristics of the rock matrix, which transfers significant stresses from the sources of tectonic movements (or human-related activities) onto the fault planes, remains underexplored. This project aims to develop a novel laboratory setup for measuring the creep behavior of rocks subjected to sustained pure shear stresses. The test data will be used to determine the anisotropic creep properties, thereby advancing the understanding of subsurface stress evolution as a precursor to seismic events. Moreover, by integrating the time-dependent behaviors of both rock mass and fault planes, our revolutionary test results will largely enhance the prediction of fault slip and its seismic risks during naturally occurring and human-related earthquakes.

Manisha Nigam: Green Chemistry in Undergraduate Research

Team members include: 

Manisha Nigam (team lead), University Pitt Johnstown –  Department of Chemistry

 An additional team member is from University Pitt Johnstown - Department of Chemistry

Abstract: This proposal asks for support for purchasing, using, and integrating an industrial microwave to achieve short reaction times in green chemistry experiments in our research laboratories at the University of Pittsburgh Johnstown (UPJ). An industrial microwave is a green technology that will replace traditional heating sources such as hot plates and will be used for undergraduate research. The Pitt-Johnstown research laboratories currently do not include equipment of this type, and neither do the other campuses in the area.

UPJ is a recent signee of the Green Chemistry Commitment (GCC) through Beyond Benign, a non-profit organization dedicated to empowering educators with resources to integrate green chemistry into chemistry education. This proposal also aligns with the Pitt- Sustainability Plan. This proposal will support the university’s commitment to sustainable principles in preparing students to lead lives of impact through a supportive environment-focused approach to learning inside and outside the classroom.

An industrial microwave for the Pitt-Johnstown research laboratory will enable the faculty and students to utilize efficient new ways to implement tenets of green chemistry. This research focuses on green chemistry and sustainability to develop experiments highlighting green chemistry principles, improving synthetic organic reactions with green alternatives, and developing new reaction methodologies.

Sabrina Streipert: Models of Different Time Scales and the Importance of Time Synchrony in Ecology

Sabrina Streipert, Department of Mathematics

Abstract: This proposal aims to develop a mathematical theory to investigate the dynamics of interacting processes that operate on different time scales. As of now, the modeling of interacting processes requires consistency of the time domain across processes. For example, a system of differential equations describes all modeled processes continuously and a system of difference equations describes all modeled processes discretely. There are several reasons for choosing one modeling framework over the other — including model complexity and accuracy, data availability, computational benefits, modeling purpose, etc. What if interacting processes suggest different modeling frameworks? That is, what are the effects of two inter-dependent processes, where one is modeled discretely and the other is modeled continuously? The scope of this proposal is to develop a mathematical theory that enables the modeling of intertwined processes on a mixed time domain, which will answer questions similar to the above ones. The proposed mathematical theory will provide a modeling framework to investigate, for example, environmental changes on species using tractable mathematical techniques despite the non-autonomous model structure.  It is also the first step toward investigating time synchrony of species within an ecosystem and derive a corresponding intrinsic, species-dependent, time-resilience measure.

Susheng Tan: Atomistic Insight into the Interface Atomic Mixing Between Substrate and Additively Manufactured Titanium Alloy

Susheng Tan, Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering

Abstract: This project aims to reveal the interface inter atomic mixing phenomenon by studying microstructural evolution at the interface of a substrate and an additively manufactured Titanium alloy. The project will identify the critical role of the recently developed additive manufacturing techniques for producing high-strength and high ductility Titanium alloys. Advanced electron microscopic characterization techniques, including scanning electron microscopy (SEM), transmission electron microscopy (TEM), scanning transmission electron microscopy (STEM), combined with X-ray energy dispersive spectroscopy (EDS), X-ray wavelength dispersive spectroscopy (WDS), electron backscatter diffraction (EBSD), and electron energy loss spectroscopy (EELS), will be employed to explore the following two specific phenomena at the micro- to atomic-scales: (i) The chemical composition and microstructure at the interface; (ii)The role of manufacturing parameters in refining the evolving duplex microstructure. This research will advance our ability to develop alloys of Titanium having both high strength and high ductility. The preliminary results obtained from this study will help develop a large-scale collaborative project with the PI, Professor Prashant N. Kumta (Department of Bioengineering) and an industry partner.

Christopher Wilmer: Expanding the Impact of Accessible Open-Source Chemistry Software: New Capabilities for Avogadro

Team members include: 

Christopher Wilmer (team lead), Department of Chemical & Petroleum Engineering

 An additional team member is from the Department of Chemistry

Abstract: One of the most popular pieces of open-source chemistry software in the world, Avogadro, was created at Pitt by Prof. Geoffrey Hutchison and now has over 2.1 million downloads. Avogadro is an advanced molecule editor and visualizer designed for cross-platform use in computational chemistry, molecular modeling, bioinformatics, materials science, and related areas. It offers flexible high-quality rendering and a powerful plugin architecture. Avogadro is used both in high schools for teaching and in university research labs to pursue frontier problems in all fields of chemistry.

Despite Avogadro's success, it is imperative to expand its capabilities to stay relevant with the ever-advancing research frontier. Specifically, this proposal focuses on adding new features to Avogadro to facilitate the building of complex molecular and materials systems. Most molecular chemistry editors are only practical for building small, simple molecules, and there is a need for tools that can handle larger molecules interacting with complex substrates, other biomolecules, or catalysts. With Pitt Momentum funds, we plan to develop the necessary prototype features and subsequently submit a strong proposal to the NSF’s Cyberinfrastructure for Sustained Scientific Innovation (CSSI) program.

Ricky Burgess: Addressing Workplace Bias through Bystander Training

Team members include:

Ricky Burgess (team lead), Department of Organizations and Entrepreneurship

An additional team member is from the Department of Emergency Medicine

This project is aligned with the themes of the Year of Discourse and Dialogue.

Abstract: This project seeks to better understand the factors that influence intervention by witnesses of racial discrimination. While scholars have shown that members stigmatized groups pay a cost for confronting the discrimination that they face (Heckman et al, 2017), there is emerging evidence that bystanders that confront racial discrimination can shift the beliefs of discrimination perpetrators while experiencing less punishment (Czopp, Monteith, and Mark, 2006). To this end, Dr. Rickquel Tripp and Dr. Emilia Diego developed the UPSTANDER training to encourage employees to intervene during incidents of discrimination and have delivered the training broadly to both UMPC and University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine employees and students. In the proposed project, we seek the evaluate the efficacy of the Upstander training and explore the mechanisms that influence intervention behavior by witnesses of racial discrimination. Specifically, we explore both the immediate and long-term efficacy of the training, as well as the psychological and contextual factors through which the training may impact employee behaviors. This project will both advance knowledge about bystander intervention to racial discrimination, as well as advance efforts at the University of Pittsburgh school of medicine and UPMC to create a more inclusive workplace climate through meaningful discourse and dialogue.

Priscila Da Silva Castanha: A Human Skin Model of Tick-Borne Virus Transmission

Team members include:

Priscila Da Silva Castanha (team lead), Department of Infectious Diseases & Microbiology

An additional team member is from the Department of Infectious Diseases & Microbiology

Abstract: Powassan virus (POWV) is an emerging tick-borne virus of public health concern. Infection can cause severe neuroinvasive disease, with half of the survivors experiencing long-term neurological sequelae. The skin is the primary site of virus transmission following the bite of a POWV-infected tick. However, the early interactions between skin-resident immune cells and POWV remain elusive due to the lack of translational models. In this proposal, I will build on and extend my previous work with human skin model systems to investigate the initial events influencing POWV transmission at the host-pathogen interface. The central hypothesis is that POWV infects and exploits skin-resident cells and existing cellular defenses to facilitate viral dissemination in human skin. The expected outcomes are the revealed contribution of each individual cell type within the skin to virus tropism and the identification of early immune markers of POWV infection. These results will provide the basis for future grant proposals centered upon understanding the complex early virus-host-vector interactions critical for the successful transmission of POWV. These studies promise to inform the rational design of potential therapeutic targets against tick-borne viruses of global relevance.

Christopher Imes: Examining Multidimensional Sleep Health and Stakeholder Engagement to Inform a Behavioral Sleep Health Intervention among Nurses Working Night and Rotating Shifts

Team members include:

Christopher Imes (team lead), Department of Acute & Tertiary Care

An additional team member is from the Department of Health & Community Systems

Abstract: Nursing demands long hours of stressful work—often in irregular shifts—that disrupts healthy sleep patterns and places nurses at risk for fatigue and decreased cognitive performance leading to workplace injuries and medical errors.

The innovative Multidimensional Sleep Health (MDSH) framework concurrently examines multiple dimensions of sleep (e.g., regularity, satisfaction, alertness, timing, efficiency, and duration). While MDSH represents a continuum of sleep health for everyone, there is a need to define its dimensions further for shift workers. The Transdiagnostic Intervention for Sleep and Circadian Dysfunction (TranS-C) is a behavioral sleep intervention targeting MDSH. In a previous pilot study, we demonstrated that an adapted TranS-C intervention improved MDSH in a non-shift working sample.

This proposed study will have two phases. The first phase will describe the MDSH of nurses engaged in shiftwork and include interviews exploring the meaning of the sleep health and its dimensions in the context of shiftwork. During the second phase, we will work with stakeholders to identify the strengths, weakness, and alternatives of our existing TranS-C intervention to meet the unique needs of shift working nurses. This study will provide the necessary data and intervention refinement required to seek external funding to pilot test the adapted TranS-C intervention.

Andrea Mora: MAPI Study: Linking Neighborhood Violence to Mexican Adolescent Psychological and Immune Health

Team members include:

Andrea Mora (team lead), Department of Psychology

An additional team member is from the Department of Psychology

Abstract: Violence is considered a global health crisis that particularly affects poor Latin American populations (Human Rights Watch, 2023), yet there is scarce research conducted in the global south in Mexico. Given the pivotal changes in the physiological and psychological development of adolescence, it is crucial to understand the effects of violence exposure, as well as factors that may protect adolescents from adverse outcomes to develop culturally informed and sensitive interventions for Latino/as inside and outside the U.S. context. This proposal aims to investigate the links between multiple forms of violence in neighborhoods (e.g., community violence, sexual harassment) and Mexican adolescents’ (N = 140) psychological (e.g., anxiety, depression, PTSD) and immune (e.g., markers of inflammation) health. Drawing from a resilience and strengths-based perspective, potentially protective factors, such as close parent-adolescent relationship, familismo, and school belonging, will also be examined. Students (aged 11–18) from 2 public schools in Uruapan, Michoacan Mexico will be recruited to participate in surveys followed by a serum blood draw to assess levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines. This will be the first comprehensive survey-based and biomarker collection study with Mexican adolescents to examine protective factors in the links between neighborhood violence and psychological and immune health.

Anthony Schwacha: Forward Genetic Screen to Identify Novel Factors Involved in R-loop Formation and Resolution

Team members include:

Anthony Schwacha (team lead), Department of Biological Sciences

An additional team member is from the Department of Computational & Structural Biology

Abstract: DNA damage is the basis for many types of human disease. One such form of DNA damage, the R-loop, is a stable nucleic acid structure in which transcribed RNA remains abnormally attached to its DNA template. The
presence and/or defective repair of this structure leads to DNA breaks and deleterious changes to the genetic code. However, a comprehensive catalog of the relevant cellular factors and a proposed mechanism behind R-loop formation and resolution remains incomplete and controversial, in part largely due to the lack of a simple and easily quantifiable R-loop assay. To address this deficiency, my lab has recently developed a simple assay for R-loop quantitation in living cells (RNaseH-GFP). Unlike the current standard R-loop assay (immunofluorescence using the S9.6 antibody), our assay is compatible with forward genetic screening. With my collaborator in the Drug Discovery Institute (Dr. Andreas Vogt), we plan to identify novel genes that modulate either R-loop formation or resolution using high-content imaging. To comprehensively assess the contribution of all genes, we propose to use our new assay to screen the budding yeast knockout collection, a systematically constructed group of ~6000 mutants that contain null or conditional alleles of each yeast gene.

Linda DeAngelo: Determining Change Agents: Understanding and Enhancing the Environment for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) in Engineering

Linda DeAngelo, Department of Educational Foundations and Organizations & Policy

Abstract: BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) faculty are integral to higher education's success, yet face persistently hostile, racially charged environments. Encountering microaggressions, tokenism, and excessive service demands, they often experience reduced belongingness, retention rates, and tenure prospects, notably within STEM disciplines. This quantitative study employs a quasi-experimental design that will use: (a) Descriptive statistics gauging faculty perceptions of their environment and their readiness to drive equitable change and (b) Propensity-score matching and regression techniques to uncover specific experiences and institutional factors shaping faculty's commitment and preparedness to advocate for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) initiatives. Surveying BIPOC and White faculty at the top 25 U.S. engineering colleges, this research targets institutions wielding significant influence. With an anticipated 10% response rate from ~7000 engineering faculty (N=700), the sample will enable nuanced analysis by race, gender, rank, and appointment type, illuminating the current landscape and strategic intervention areas. The analysis comprises an environmental scan and an inferential investigation, leveraging established quantitative methods. This research contributes empirical evidence that promotes DEIB practices in academia, striving for inclusive and supportive academic environment for all faculty. The findings aim to inform actionable strategies to advance equity and inclusivity in higher education.

Claire Duquennois: Racial Bias Impacts on Mental Health: Can Child Media Representation Help?

Claire Duquennois, Department of Economics

Abstract: Can child media reduce peer prejudice and foster better mental health for minority populations? Sesame Street’s representation of minority characters and egalitarian minority-White interactions was distinctive in the mass media landscape of 1969, when it started airing. This project will explore the effects of early childhood exposure to Sesame Street on adult mental health. By exploiting both technologically induced variation in broadcast reception and cohort variation in exposure, this project will provide the first causally identified evidence of the mental health impacts resulting from a reduction in prejudice in an individual’s environment. Preliminary results show that white preschool-age children exposed to Sesame Street exhibit reductions in their implicit biases as adults and that exposure to Sesame Street had important impacts on adult mental health with differential effects by race. The restricted-use Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System and the National Health Interview Survey will be acquired to fully explore these early results. While numerous psychological and medical studies have shown a strong correlation between racial discrimination and poorer mental health (Williams et al., 2019; Paradies et al., 2015), there is a pressing need for causally identified research that employs quasi-experimental methods to explore the mental health impacts of changes in exposure to racial biases.

Ashley Gomez: Entrepreneurial Ecosystems and Immigrant Latina/o/x Entrepreneurs

Ashley Gomez, Department of Organizations and Entrepreneurship

Abstract: How do Latina/o/x entrepreneurs come to understand, participate in, and advance their business ventures within an entrepreneurial ecosystem in a region with an emerging Latina/o/x population? Latina/o/x businesses start at a faster rate across various industries than the national average. Despite the significant economic contributions made by Latina/o/x-owned businesses, they face increased economic vulnerability and encounter unique challenges on their path to realizing their full potential. This study aims to investigate the obstacles and support systems experienced by Latina/o/x entrepreneurs using the entrepreneurial ecosystem as an analytical lens. To gather comprehensive insights, we will collect data from Latina/o/x entrepreneurs and other key stakeholders through in-depth interviews, ethnographic observations, surveys, and analyzing existing archival data. The findings of this study will not only provide valuable insights to the scholarly community, but also will be used to assess and propose practical solutions for driving social change, promoting inclusivity in innovation, and enhancing entrepreneurship opportunities for underserved populations. Our specific focus will be on the Latina/o/x communities in Allegheny County where According to the U.S. Bureau's 2020 Census the Latina/o/x population grew 80% between 2010-2020.

Kuo-Ting Huang: Augmenting STEM Education in Rural Sierra Leone

Kuo-Ting Huang, Department of Information Culture & Data Stewardship

Abstract: This project aims to ameliorate STEM education in Sierra Leone's underprivileged, rural communities by introducing remote-learning technologies. Utilizing refined RACHEL(Remote Area Community Hotspot for Education and Learning) devices and solar power equipment, the initiative aspires to mitigate educational resource and funding deficiencies in three rural primary schools: DEC Kabala, Fadugu, and Senekedugu. A pilot implementation was conducted in Kabala village in May 2023, establishing the initial framework for deploying these systems and identifying unexpected challenges. A subsequent intervention will feature optimizations in technology and infrastructure for elevated security and efficiency, advancement of technical proficiency among educators and learners through collaborative training modules, and the customization of content to amplify STEM learning outcomes.

Through academic enrichment, our initiative seeks to empower these students with the critical baseline skills they need to become future innovators, evoking socioeconomic change for their communities. The objective is to create a replicable model that can be applied to address educational imbalances in similarly resource-constrained communities throughout sub-Saharan Africa, driving forward the broader developmental goals of the region. This project demonstrates the power and potential positive long-term effects of learning-technology in combating educational inequality and poverty in Sierra Leone and beyond.

Russell Phillips: The Creation of a Reliable and Valid Cross Cultural Religious Fundamentalism Scale

Team members include:

Russell Phillips, University Pitt-Greensburg – Department of Psychology 

Additional team members are from University Pitt-Greensburg’s Natural Sciences & Mathematics Division and Humanities Division

This project is aligned with the themes of the Year of Discourse and Dialogue.

Abstract: During the Year of Discourse and Dialogue, in order to better understand growing conservative religions across the world and their influence on politics, we ask – what are the aspects that make up religious fundamentalism/nationalism; what items are best contained in a reliable and valid scale of this construct; and what are the correlates and potential causes of this phenomenon? Our research builds on the lead investigator’s peer-reviewed publication reviewing existing fundamentalism measures, theory, and research, and initial empirical studies carried out with expert and college student samples. We endeavor to assess fundamentalism and its correlates in community samples across cultures and religions (Indian Hindus, Turkish Muslims, and American Christians), with the goal of creating a measure of religious fundamentalism that is more complete and less biased than existing measures and is relevant across cultures and religions, as well as identifying causes and implications of fundamentalism. We expect this research to be published in leading peer-reviewed social science of religion journals. The end goal is to better understand right-wing, conservative religions, in order to improve dialogue with such groups.

M. Yasir Khan: Mental Health and Community Health Workers' Performance

M. Yasir Khan, Department of Economics

Abstract: Community Health Workers provide preventive services to mothers and children in resource-scarce and difficult environments in rural Pakistan. As a result, many workers are stressed and unable to perform to their full potential. In this project, I aim to study if providing psychological support, through an intervention developed following the Problem Management Plus approach of the WHO, can help workers improve their mental well-being, and if that translates into better performance on the job. The intervention will be delivered as a mix of in-person and phone call sessions keeping the lessons from this pilot relevant for low-resource settings. We'll survey randomly selected households to collect information on the performance of workers to construct outcome variables. The project will be first implemented as a pilot (focus of the priming grant) and, depending on the results, will later be scaled up in partnership with the Department of Health in Pakistan.

Fernando Tormos Aponte: Measuring Power Outage Frequency and Duration, Assessing the Social and Technical Drivers of Power Restoration Timescales, and Predicting Future Power Outages

Fernando Tormos Aponte, Department of Sociology

Abstract: To what extent are marginalized communities disproportionately burdened with power outages? What are the social drivers and consequences of energy inequality? This project combines NASA's Black Marble data products (satellite images of nighttime nightlights), electric utility data, and electricity customer outage self-reports to develop a novel approach to measuring power outage frequency and duration, assessing the social and technical drivers of power restoration timescales, and predicting future power outages at neighborhood scales. The project innovates by integrating these distinct Earth science observations to cross-validate, confirm the reliability, build on the strengths, and address the shortcomings of these data products. this project is designed to 1) address existing power outages and energy inequality data barriers and 2) inform grid resilience investments. This project will achieve its objectives through two key strategies: data integration and scenario optimization. It will integrate diverse sources of power outage data, addressing concerns about underreporting and data transparency. It will identify last-mile outages and their patterns, inform grid resilience investments, and analyze the factors affecting outage duration. It will also explore innovative policy solutions to address disparities in government and utility response, ultimately aiming to reduce loss of life, property damage, and disruptions to global supply chains.

Elaine Wilson: Exploring Immersive Behavior Vignettes

Team members include:

Elaine Wilson (team lead), University Pitt-Johnstown Department of Special Education

 An additional team member is from University Pitt-Johnstown Computer School of Computing and Informationence

Abstract: Can immersive XR behavior vignettes improve preservice teachers’ abilities to observe and correctly identify the functions of behavior? Disruptive changes in society and technology led to an increase in problematic behavior in the classroom. The COVID-19 pandemic amplified these already existing problems. We propose to display problematic student behavior vignettes to preservice teachers using immersive XR technology. Our goal is to improve preservice teachers’ abilities to (i) observe problematic behavior, (ii) identify the functions of behavior, and (iii) self-assess their own reactions to students’ problematic behavior. This will help improve preservice teachers’ classroom management skills through a better understanding of the spatio-temporal dimensions of behavioral aspects of communication in the classroom. In this project, we will develop a catalog of behavior in closed agile feedback loops with classroom teachers, behavior specialists, related service professionals, and researchers. The catalog will consist of real, observed instances of problematic behaviors that are sampled from classrooms and afterschool programs of low-income urban and rural school districts. We will then develop workflows to create three-dimensional versions of behavior vignettes and program software applications for immersive display. Finally, we will conduct a study to assess the effectiveness of our approach.