PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has awarded two Brown University faculty members, an economist and a physicist, with 2023 research fellowships.
Peter Hull, an assistant professor of economics, and Jia Li, an assistant professor of physics, are among 126 researchers from across the United States and Canada to receive the prestigious fellowships this year, the foundation announced on Wednesday, Feb. 15. The scholars will each receive $75,000 over two years to advance their research.
Hull said the Sloan Research Fellowship will help strengthen his work developing new statistical methods to better understand persistent inequalities in education, health care and the criminal justice system. His interest in the drivers of inequality began when, as a Ph.D. student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he explored the extent to which public school ratings capture true school quality. In a recent study, Hull and his co-authors showed that bias in school ratings drives the correlation between ratings and student racial composition — in other words, public schools with mostly white students aren’t necessarily better rated because they offer better teaching and resources, but because the students arrive at those schools more prepared due to advantages they’re afforded outside the classroom.
In another recent study, Hull and his co-authors found large racial disparities in the pre-trial release rates of bail judges in New York City that couldn’t be attributed to differences in defendants’ likelihood of engaging in pre-trial misconduct. The findings suggest that existing pre-trial release policies are driven at least in part by judges’ racial biases and have a disparate impact on Black defendants.
“There’s a growing recognition in economics and other fields that it’s not enough to measure discrimination or point out where it exists,” Hull said. “It’s equally important, if not more so, to understand where disparities come from — whether, for example, they stem from bias among a small number of actors or whether they are driven by systemic forces. I’m very interested in developing and applying methods for understanding these different drivers, in part because different drivers call for different policy responses.”
He said the Sloan Research Fellowship could potentially fund future partnerships with criminal justice reformers and the managers of school-rating websites, enriching his research and deepening economists’ understandings of entrenched inequalities in high-stakes decisions.
Hull — who came to Brown from the University of Chicago, where he was a research fellow and then an assistant professor — believes the fellowship honors the impact of Brown’s Department of Economics more broadly, where faculty are focused on confronting complex social problems.
“Honors like this one help highlight the kind of work we do here at Brown,” Hull said. “I’m very excited about the direction in which the department is headed, and all of the recent support it’s received.”
Enabling tech transformations
Li is a condensed matter experimental physicist whose research focuses on the quantum properties in 2D materials, which are materials on the atomic scale made of a single layer of atoms or molecules. In his laboratory at Brown, Li and his group layer these materials into structures where they develop new methods for probing quantum phases and observing previously unknown quantum phenomena. Studying these materials can enable future technological transformations and bring about real-world applications in computational and sensing technologies.
The funds from the fellowship will help Li develop and acquire new measurement equipment and apparatuses in his lab, as well as support graduate students who help make the work possible.
“Every time we develop a new experimental technique or method to look at systems of 2D materials — even a material that has been studied for decades — a lot of new information comes out of it,” Li said. “With every step, we are redefining our understanding of how electrons behave in quantum systems.”
Li has been passionate about physics since childhood and quickly settled on it as a career path. He received his Ph.D. in physics from Northwestern University and was a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University before joining the Brown physics department in 2019.
Li has had a number of recent papers published in high-impact journals such as Nature, Science, Nature Physics and Physical Review Letters. In 2021, his lab led the development of a new technique that weakens the repulsive force between electrons in “magic-angle” graphene superconductors, providing physicists with exciting new details about this strange state of matter. Last year, his lab helped create a superconducting diode without a magnetic field in a multi-layer graphene system, a development that could form the basis for future “lossless” electronics.
About the Sloan Fellowships
The Sloan Research Fellowships are awarded annually to early-career scientists and scholars identified as the next generation of scientific leaders. Past fellows include mathematician John Nash, widely regarded as a father of modern game theory, and Nobel Prize-winning elementary particle physicist Murray Gell-Mann.
According to the Sloan Foundation, more than 1,000 scholars across seven scientific and technical fields were nominated by their fellow scientists this year. A panel of senior scholars selected the 126 fellows on the basis of their research accomplishments, creativity and potential to become leaders in their field.
Since the first Sloan Research Fellowships were awarded in 1955, 72 faculty from Brown have received the prestigious award.