The Office of the Vice President for Research is pleased to announce the awardees for the 2019-2020 VPR Research & Creative Grants. Thirty-nine proposals covering a wide variety of disciplines were reviewed by a committee of faculty peers, who selected twelve one-year projects to fund at a level of up to $10,000 each. The winners represented seven colleges across campus. The twelve awardees are these:

Samy Ayoub, Assistant Professor of Law and Middle Eastern Studies, School of Law

Law and Legal Modernity in Colonial Egypt, 1800-1955

Law occupies a central role in imperial governance in British colonial Egypt. Until 1955, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic courts were key to the Khedival rule over a diverse population within semi-independent Egypt under Ottoman imperial tutelage. This project offers a crucial intervention in the fields of law and Islamic and Ottoman history by taking into account the everyday debates about legal reform, substantive case-law, and institutions of justice that shaped the body of scholarship in the 19th – 20th century Egyptian plural legal regime. This study offers a comparative analysis of the Egyptian government ordinances that sought to regulate religious courts, and chronicles the emergence of codified state-sanctioned family law for all three legal traditions (Jewish, Christian, and Islamic). I propose that these religious courts serve as a medium that facilitates the practical separation of the domain of family law from the remainder of the emerging secular court system.

Paola Bonifazio, Associate Professor, Italian Studies, Department of French & Italian

Italian Producers Go to Hollywood: Cinema Cultures in Contact from Neorealism to the Spaghetti Western

This research project examines transnational relations of filmmaking between Italy and the United States after War World II to study the dynamics of representation and self-representation of national identities and cultures across the binary of art and commercial entertainment. Through the analyses of correspondence, reviews, contracts, and other documents, Dr. Bonifazio investigates practices of film co-production, distribution and reception to demonstrate how the opposition between American and European (particularly, Italian) cinemas is in fact an imagined picture drawn by a complex process of writing and re-writing national film histories. Tentatively titled Italian Producers Go to Hollywood: Cinema Cultures in Contact from Neorealism to the Spaghetti Western, this book project aims to demonstrate that established definitions of European Cinema as an art and of European directors as film auteurs are in fact products of a nuanced process of self-fashioning and representation.

Elizabeth Cosgriff-Hernandez, Professor, L.B. (Preach) Meaders Professorship in Engineering, Cellular and Biomolecular Engineering

Conductive Hydrogels with Rapid In Situ Cure for Cardiac Pacing

Chaotic disturbances in normal heart rhythm, called arrhythmias, affect more than 4 million Americans. Areas of slowed conduction in the heart (myocardial scar tissue) can lead to chaotic electrical circuits on the myocardium and is the underlying mechanism for the formation of lethal ventricular arrhythmia, which is the leading cause of sudden cardiac death. There is a need for a treatment that could restore conduction over diseased myocardium. A conductive material placed across the scar can potentially provide a conductive pathway across the scar thereby effectively restoring the normal heart rhythm. To this end, this research proposal aims to develop a hydrogel system that can be injected into a vein in the heart to turn it into a flexible lead that extends the reach of current pacemaker leads across these areas of scarred heart tissue and restore normal conduction to the heart. 

Benjamin Gregg, Associate Professor, Department of Government

Evaluating Bioethical Regulation in a Non-Democratic State

This project compares three different national approaches to the question: How best does the state regulate genetic technologies able to make heritable changes to the human germline by altering the DNA sequences of embryos? A public, deliberative approach to deciding this difficult and controversial issue is central to the respective approaches of Great Britain and France; it is absent in Singapore. This project completes the third leg of this comparison by evaluating two key features of Singapore’s Bioethics Advisory Committee’s approach: (1) subordinating individual interest to group interest (rather than subordinating group interest to individual interest) and (2) a top-down approach (rather than a transparent dialogue with public input). I evaluate each feature by measuring and analyzing (a) levels of public knowledge about this public policy issue and (b) levels of popular embrace or rejection. Measurement draws on standard social scientific practice; analysis draws on moral theory and current bioethical discourse.

Hongjoo Lee, Associate Professor, Department of Psychology

Reducing Alcohol-Seeking Behavior with Retrieval+Extinction

Alcohol is extremely prevalent and environmental cues that predict alcohol abound in daily life. Pleasurable effects associated with alcohol cues may promote problematic drinking in some individuals. Current treatment for alcohol abuse includes cue-exposure therapy, a behavioral procedure in which alcohol cues are systematically presented in the absence of alcohol to promote a reduction or “extinction” of alcohol-seeking behaviors. Unfortunately, extinguished alcohol-seeking behaviors are highly susceptible to relapse. We recently used a novel behavioral paradigm (retrieval+extinction) to successfully prevent relapse in rats with low-level exposure to alcohol. This retrieval+extinction approach has enormous potential in that only a simple modification to the existing cue-exposure therapy is needed to implement. One crucial step is to test the generalizability of our procedure in rats showing alcohol dependency to better model humans with problematic alcohol use. The results of our studies will contribute to the development of better treatments for alcohol abuse. 

Seongmin Lee, Associate Professor, Jaime N. Delgado Endowed Professorship in Pharmacy, Division of Chemical Biology and Medicinal Chemistry

Evaluation of the Mutagenicity of Cisplatin and its Modulation of Acquired Chemoresistance in High-Grade Serous Ovarian Cancer

High-grade serous ovarian carcinoma (HGSOC) is characterized by vast genome instability and is responsible for approximately 80% of ovarian cancer deaths, largely due to patient relapse stemming from chemoresistance to the frontline therapy, cisplatin. While cisplatin forms DNA lesions that induce cell death, these lesions also promote undesired mutations in surviving cells and their progeny (lineages). Thus, cisplatin furthers the genomic instability of HGSOC cells, increasing genetic diversity and enhancing possibilities for the acquisition of chemoresistance throughout treatment. This study will determine how the mutagenicity of cisplatin modulates the acquisition of chemoresistance in HGSOC cell populations by evaluating lineage dynamics and genome alterations throughout treatment. Key to this study is an innovative dual lineage tracing-isolation tool to temporally track and isolate particular resistant lineages throughout treatment for genomic studies at outstanding resolution. These data will be critical in support of future grant applications to the NIH and the Rivkin Center.

Erin Lentz, Assistant Professor of Public Affairs, LBJ School of Public Affairs

The Social Life of Famine

Despite significant attention to famines across the social sciences, we know comparatively little about how people navigate famines, what kinds of socialities emerge and are shaped within and through it, and how people make sense of the often-tremendous political instabilities and transformations that herald and/or follow-on famine events. This project takes up this challenge by collecting oral-histories from survivors of 1974/1975 famine in Bangladesh, in which up to 1.5 million people died. Research elsewhere shows people do not simply suffer through moments of crisis and disaster; they attempt to navigate them and their aftermaths—that such crises have social lives. By centering populations typically imagined as passive victims of famine to the heart of narratives about it, I aim to explore the social life of famines. In so doing, the researcher seeks to shed light on questions about crisis, disaster, humanitarianism, and political rupture.

Zhanfei Liu, Associate Professor, Department of Marine Science

Multi-dimensional Structural Elucidation of Oceanic Dissolved Organic Matter Using High Resolution Mass Spectrometry

The ocean plays an important role in absorbing anthropogenic CO2 and thus the Earth’s climate. The CO2 in the ocean can be converted to dissolved organic carbon (DOC) through microorganisms including algae and bacteria, a term coined “microbial carbon pump”. To better understand this mechanism and global carbon cycling and predict future climate, there is a critical need to decipher molecular structures of DOC, which has long remained as a challenge for marine scientists due to the fact that DOC is a rather complex mixture, containing hundreds of thousands of compounds. In this work, we propose to characterize the molecular structure of oceanic DOC using state of the art mass spectrometry, which will provide multidimensional structural information of DOM molecules. We will shed light on the essential question about why DOM can persist for a time scale of several thousand years in the deep ocean.

Fred Valdez, Jr., Professor, Department of Anthropology

The Rancho Archaeology Project (RAP) – Archaic and Preclassic Maya Transitions

This project draws upon recent advancements in archaeology, geochemistry, and ancient DNA research to investigate the long-debated emergence of Maya civilization. Previous scholars suggest the ancient Maya were a separate population from earlier occupants. This project postulates that Archaic Period (ca. 8000-1000 BC) discoveries and manipulation of a controlled food supply allowed for more permanent settlement and suggests that cultural contact, information exchange, and ancestry acted as the driving forces behind the rise of Maya civilization. Due to a 6000-year occupation history, the Archaic and Maya inhabitants of the Rancho area of north Belize provide a special opportunity to investigate the nature of cultural interactions, technological developments, and genetic ancestry between two seemingly different populations. This study combines archaeology, genetics, geography, and geology to investigate linkages between Archaic and ancient Maya populations, increasing our understanding of the role plant domestication, technological advancements, and ancestry played in social complexity.

Rabun Taylor, Professor, Department of Classics

Rome, Water, and Climate Change: An Environmental History of the Aqua Traiana

This project examines a special environmental relationship between the city of Rome, its hinterland, and climate change. The target region lies around Lake Bracciano to the city’s northwest, a major source of aqueduct water that has served Rome over the last 2,000 years. The Aqua Traiana, an aqueduct introduced in 109 CE, drained the regional spring sources into the metropolis, creating a regime of mutual dependency that has lasted, on and off, to the present day. Did past droughts impel Rome to keep augmenting its water supply as a hedge against shortage? And how did this source region negotiate the drastic changes to its own water supply? Using numerous analytical methods—archival research, field prospection, ground-penetrating radar, and the geochemical and pollen analysis of sediment cores taken from the regional lakes—the project team aims to model this relationship in ecological terms, tracking patterns of mutual dependency and exploitation.

Bo Xie, Professor, School of Nursing

Improving eHealth Literacy and Cognitive Function in Older Adults with Mild Cognitive Impairment

Alzheimer’s disease and Alzheimer’s-related dementias (ADRD) have become a major public health concern. Increasing consensus suggests that interventions targeting an early stage of ADRD, e.g., at the mild cognitive impairment (MCI) stage, will be most effective in slowing or stopping the progression of ADRD and maintaining cognitive functioning. Our earlier NIA R21 study featured a theory-driven, interactive, computerized intervention aimed to improve older adults’ abilities to obtain, evaluate, and use online health information (i.e., eHealth literacy) while strengthening their cognitive processes that are key to daily health-related behaviors (e.g., information seeking for informed health decision-making). The efficacy of this intervention was initially tested among cognitively intact older adults. The proposed VPR project adds a new arm by broadening our pool of research participants to older adults with MCI. By adding an in-depth, qualitative component, we will gather exploratory data on the feasibility of the intervention among older adults with MCI.

Abstracts for the awarded projects are available online.

The VPR Research and Creative Grant program provides support of up to $10,000 for specific projects of individual tenured and tenure-track faculty members. The program’s overall objectives are to promote research, outreach, and creative activities in all disciplines. For more information and annual submission deadlines, please visit the Vice President for Research website.