Penn State Science Faculty Receive Kaufman Foundation Grants for Research “to Enhance Human Understanding and Improve Quality of Life”


Charles E. Kaufman understood that scientific research helps to fuel industry innovation and economic growth. A Pittsburgh-based chemical engineer, entrepreneur and investor, Kaufman established a foundation in 2006 to support research activities in chemistry, biology and physics at Pennsylvania educational institutions. Since 2013, The Charles E. Kaufman Foundation, a supporting organization of The Pittsburgh Foundation, has awarded 70 grants totaling $14.7 million to foster and encourage fundamental research for the betterment and understanding of human life. 

This year, three faculty members and two research projects in Penn State’s Eberly College of Science are beneficiaries of the foundation’s New Initiatives grants, which encourage investigators with strong research records to establish interdisciplinary collaborations that apply a novel approach to a research topic. Each project will receive $300,000 over a two-year period ($150,000 per year).

Mikael Rechtsman, Ph.D., Downsbrough Early Career Development professor of physics, is principal investigator for “Magnetizing light: From X-ray astronomy to silicon photonics,” which explores methods for making photon light particles “feel” magnetic fields. Randall McEntaffer, Ph.D., professor of astronomy and astrophysics, is co-investigator.

“Our work is on trying to make light behave as though it had an electric charge and was moving through a magnetic field, by passing it through a material that we structure at the nanoscale. This can have the effect of making the light interact more strongly with the material it’s passing through,” explains Rechtsman. “This could have uses in making tiny lasers for use in supercomputers, as well as quantum telecommunications.”

“This could have uses in making tiny lasers for use in supercomputers, as well as quantum telecommunications.”

Lauren Zarzar, Ph.D., assistant professor of chemistry, serves as co-investigator for “Physicochemical communication between active droplets,” which will quantify communication and propulsion of active chemical droplets that seem to exhibit dynamics traditionally associated with flocks of birds or bacterial colonies. Aditya Khair, Ph.D., professor of chemical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, is principal investigator.

“We are examining the chemical ‘communication’ between droplets and how chemical gradients drive the droplet’s collective interactions,” Zarzar explains. “These studies may provide insights into the design of chemically minimal systems that exhibit lifelike, emergent active behaviors.” 

This year, the Kaufman Foundation awarded a total of $1.9 million to innovative and interdisciplinary scientific research by early-career and established scientists. All proposals address core principles in biology, physics and chemistry or cross the disciplinary boundaries of these fields. Other funded projects include the impact of climate change on symbiosis in coral reefs, B-cell antibody response that may lead to a further understanding of autoimmune disorders and how cell-sized robots can study the mechanisms of cellular life. To help ensure excellence in the next generation of scientific research, the Foundation is funding an additional $200,000 to studies that engage undergraduate students in hands-on science research.

“With the coronavirus pandemic under way and a world waking up to the harmful effects of climate change, particularly on the most vulnerable among us, it’s clear that our world needs basic scientific research more than ever,” says Lisa Schroeder, president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation. “It’s an honor for us to carry forth Charles Kaufman’s vision of enabling research that breaks down interdisciplinary barriers to enhance human understanding and improve quality of life.”

For more information, visit the Kaufman Foundation website.


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