Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Biological and Life Sciences | Physical Sciences | Public Health | Salomon Faculty Research Award Guidelines

2022 Salomon Awardees, VPR Jill Pipher and Provost Rick Locke, taken at the 2022 Celebration of Research. Photo by Deidre Confar.

Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences

My proposal requests funding support to involve Brown students and recent alumni in the production of BACKLIGHT, a microbudget narrative film. Production (principal photography) will take place in Providence this summer. Brown students and alumni will fill numerous crew and cast positions, working with professionals in key creative, technical and organizational roles who will provide guidance and training, and help ensure a safe and professional working and learning environment. In my 25 years of teaching filmmaking and screenwriting, first at RISD and since 2013 at Brown, students have been substantially involved in all of my filmmaking, including three feature films and several shorts. A Salomon Research Award would enable me to formalize and support the involvement of Brown students and recent grads in this project, and help address a substantial demand for learning through hands-on production experiences. Funding would go towards production expenses and stipends, and help to make internship opportunities accessible to students with financial need. Low-budget, professional-level filmmaking, which gives young filmmakers direct on-set experiences and mentorship, has been especially hampered by the pandemic, resulting in few opportunities for this type of learning. This project will help fill this gap, bringing groups of students and professionals together for the multifaceted and intensively collaborative experience of film production.
PI: Laura Colella, Assistant Professor of the Practice of Literary Arts

By Way of Revolution
I am proposing an expansion of my current interdisciplinary art series, “By Way of Revolution,” in preparation for several national and international exhibitions between 2022 and 2023. The project creates space for dialogue and communion among BlPOC women (cis, trans, gender non-conforming) who have historically served as overlooked yet vital assets within care politics and activist labor. The research based project combines oral, written, and embodied histories from civil rights movements of the past with images of present day activists. The work begins with gathering oral histories from present day activists and descendants of civil rights activists. I also conduct library research in liberation archives, including Black Panther newspapers and civil rights photographs. The work is further grounded through movement based research on psychosomatics and body based tools for healing and social organizing. I then work with the archival relics that activism leaves behind, turning these residues into artworks. In mixed media collages, images of historical activism are transformed into crowns of adornment on images of contemporary women. Through video, female performers activate gestures of resistance with archives projected onto their bodies. Through sculpture, crowns are made three dimensional and are worn by performers who activate space through processional style protests. I involve community at every level of this project, including in its research and production phase. Recent iterations have included Black Lives Matter chapter leaders and founders. Upcoming iterations involve Brown students, faculty and staff who identify as women of color. 
PI: Helina Metaferia, Assistant Professor of Visual Art

Scientific Americans: Knowledge Migration in the Biological Century 
This project explores how individuals who migrated to the US as adults for life science graduate training—a population I term “knowledge migrants”— make migration and professional decisions following their training’s completion. Extant literature focuses on how knowledge migrants primarily weigh scientific aspirations and economic effects in making these choices. This approach neglects individuals’ wider experiences and desires, including their experiences of the US academy and potential conflicts between kin in the nation of origin and new ties made in the US. This project examines not only these interpersonal factors but also the political, popular, and academic discourses that knowledge migrants contend with as they decide their future—especially those that construct knowledge migrants as the most desirable kind of migrant and the university as the locus of pure knowledge. This ethnographic project provides a person-centered account of how individuals weigh self, science, and circulating social norms in making these nation- and academy-altering decisions. Funding for initial work on this project will thus benefit Brown in three ways: 1) it will greatly strengthen planned applications for external funding; 2) it will enhance the project’s potential to inform graduate education in the life sciences; 3) it will advance not only the PI’s career but also the position of the campus units with which she is affiliated (Department of Education; Population Study and Training Center; Annenberg Institute; Taubman Center; Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies).
PI: Andrea Flores, Assistant Professor of Education

The Global Grey Parrot
“The Global Grey Parrot” puts a charismatic African animal (Psittacus erithacus and P. timneh) at the center of world history. Drawing on diverse sources and methods, “The Global Grey Parrot” follows these birds through centuries and around the globe. This more-than human history is not only environmental and economic; it also explores cognition and affect, revealing a fraught more-than-human politics. It also is distinguished by connecting non-human networks to human exclusions of race and class. It begins in African forests before 1500, where Greys shared knowledge and culture in flocks. Caged and exported throughout the Atlantic World, they retained their social expectations. When tamed, they do not readily submit to discipline and act out their trauma. During centuries of captivity, Greys and people developed experience of each other, but only humans transmitted knowledge to others. In isolation, Greys cannot produce culture. Now, in the Anthropocene, Greys are trafficked from their native habitat as one more commodity demanded from Africa by global markets. They are also bred in agro-industrial facilities, many produced far from their native forests in South Africa, where super-exploitative wages allow profitability. Theirs is an African condition. As wild populations decline and captive ones grow, Greys’ collective experience will be increasing confinement in human spaces. Sanctuaries and re-wilding projects offer respite from human demands. Human-parrot co-parenting of chicks may show how to create a common culture and bequeath it to offspring of both species. Recognizing parrots’ historical world-making could foster mutual world-making. The proposed fieldwork will complete the research.
PI: Nancy Jacobs, Professor of History

Investigating Plague and societal change in early medieval central Italy
The First Pandemic of Bubonic Plague caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis struck the Mediterranean world in 541 CE and recurred for 200 years. Our understanding of this disease has long relied solely on fragmentary written records but has recently been revolutionized by archaeogenetic research on human skeletons from Spain, France, Britain, and Germany where Y. pestis aDNA has been preserved in dozens of plague victims. Though at least 14 Plague outbreaks are known in Italy from written sources during this period, no archaeological research has yet been undertaken to identify Plague victims in excavated cemeteries. Building on our ongoing archaeological fieldwork at Vacone, Italy, where we have excavated a cemetery of the 7th century AD, we aim to establish a comparative chronological framework through which we can investigate health and disease in the hinterland of Rome. To do this, we propose here a first step of radiocarbon dating 40 skeletal samples from early medieval cemeteries in order to obtain absolute dates and refine chronologies for these burials. These dates will allow us to contextualize these burials within their historical context and ask targeted research questions such as those related to the First Pandemic. This project lays the first steps to a fuller understanding of an already turbulent period where Byzantine, Papal, and Lombard powers jostled for control, and investigates--for the first time in Italy--archaeological evidence for the role that pandemic disease played in this difficult and poorly understood period.
PI: Candace Rice, Assistant Professor of Archaeology and the Ancient World and Classics

Children Seeking Freedom: Race, Labor, and Childhood in Cuba
Children Seeking Freedom: Race, Labor, and Childhood in Cuba is the first book-length historical study that explores how children and childhood were implicated in, and central to, the transition away from enslaved labor in the Caribbean. The book examines the conditions and fates of poor children as they were subject to shifting notions of freedom and parental, adult, and state authority from the slow end of slavery in the 1880s through the consolidation of the postcolonial Cuban republic in the 1910s and 1920s. By straddling the colonial and national divide, Children Seeking Freedom traces the development of legal, social, institutional, and economic structures as they related to and affected the lives young Cubans living on the margins of society—especially orphans, incarcerated children, and poor children who had intermittent exposure to traditional public education or parental support. Rather than focusing primarily on institutional responses to and discourse about Cuban children, however, Children Seeking Freedom centers the experiences, hopes, creative choices, and struggles of young Cubans living on the margins of society. Taking inspiration from Saidiya Hartman’s call “to recover the insurgent ground” and “illuminate the radical imagination and everyday anarchy of ordinary colored girls” in the United States, Children Seeking Freedom looks beyond the elite perspectives of social reformers, state officials, and criminal justice and reform institutions, exploring how poor boys and girls experienced the transition from colony to independence, formed community,  and developed their own moral codes and ways of being in an emerging republic characterized by deep inequality.
PI: Daniel Rodriguez, Associate Professor of History

Making Electronic Music Inclusive: A Virtual Studio for Visually Impaired Composers
Over the past decades, electronic tools have expanded the opportunities for creative musical expression. Modern composers have benefited from this development, with access to ever more powerful and user-friendly technologies. And yet those technologies are not equally accessible to all. The ubiquity of graphical interfaces makes most tools for music composition useless for the visually impaired. My project seeks to address this challenge. Working closely with a talented and visually impaired graduate composer, I have seen first-hand the ineffectiveness of currently available solutions. Screen-reading software provides users with basic information, but it never allows them to tap into other sensory modalities—such as haptic and interface-coupled auditory feedback—that could tell them even more. My project proposes to flip the script in order to create a more inclusive and ultimately more creative solution. Building on my patent-awarded research, I will develop an original software/hardware system with a custom user interface that allows visually impaired composers full access to create interactive electronic music. With the help of a Salomon Faculty Research Award, I will design and build enabling technology to address the inequity of currently available tools. Ultimately, this project will: Allow visually impaired composers access to tools that sighted peers use daily; Bolster Brown’s reputation as a site of accessible human-computer interface design; Develop new technology with possible patent potential; Foster new creative work by visually impaired composers in the field of electronic music; and Provide a tool for sighted composers as well, through concepts of universal design.
PI:  Joseph Butch Rovan, Professor of Music

The Long Walk to Freedom: A Historio-Graphic Collaboration
The Long Walk to Freedom is a public humanities collaboration between historian Vazira Zamindar and independent graphic novelist Sarnath Banerjee to create a graphic novel and animated short about a long walk that Mahatma Gandhi and Abdul Ghaffar Khan (affectionately called Frontier Gandhi) took in 1946/47 across a landscape of intense religious strife, to heal its wounds and restore faith in our capacity to live together as part of a multi-religious society again. By literally drawing from these forgotten scenes of an extraordinary friendship, this project is imagined as an intervention in 1) historiographic debates on anticolonialism and ‘freedom,’ 2) public memory where such friendships can become ‘anti-national’ heresy, and 3) ethno-religious nationalisms that target religious minorities, and continuously produce and naturalize an irreconcilably divided South Asia. While archival material for this project is drawn from my monograph The Ruin Archive, as a collaboration between a historian and an artist, we draw on our own friendship to walk with Gandhi and Khan, and in so doing we push against the historian’s craft and the artist’s, to restitute a shared inheritance beyond Hindu/Muslim, beyond nation/state. This project captures Brown's commitment to public and collaborative humanities, and we hope will speak to the historical imagination for another kind of South Asia.
PI: Vazira F-Y Zamindar, Associate Professor of History

Biological and Life Sciences

NMR fragment-based design of b-lactamase inhibitors
A sharp and widespread increase in antimicrobial resistance (AMR) over the past three decades has seriously threatened our capability to treat bacterial infections. Of particular concern is the emergence of multi-drug resistant (MDR) and extensively-drug resistant (XDR) strains of pathogens that resist even the last-resort drugs like carbapenems, cephalosporins, and polymyxins. WHO warns that current clinical pipelines contain an insufficient number of new compounds to mitigate this rising AMR challenge. Fortunately, the past few decades have also seen a rapid development of structural biology techniques like nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), a form of spectroscopy that can generate high-resolution atomic insights of protein structure, thereby opening new avenues for structure-based drug design. These advances have led to the development of a new discipline called Fragment-based Drug Discovery (FBDD), which is at the forefront of many pharmaceutical research programs and has proven success in antimicrobial drug development. Of note, FBDD is ideal for drug optimization and should not be confused with high-throughput screening (HTS). Given the fact that the majority of recently approved antimicrobial agents for Gram-negative pathogens are β-lactam-β-lactamase inhibitor combinations, here we propose to use the FBDD approach to design inhibitors against Ambler class A/C/D β-lactamases TEM-1, SHV-1, OXA-40, and PDC-3. Our long-term goal for this project is to develop new inhibitors based on the diazabicyclooctane scaffold found in the next-generation β-lactamase inhibitors like avibactam. This application seeks funds to purchase a commercially available fragment chemical library to establish NMR-FBDD screening platform. 
PI: Mandar Naik, Assistant Professor of Molecular Biology, Cell Biology and Biochemistry (Research)

Physical Sciences

RLang: A Declarative Language for Expressing Prior Knowledge to Reinforcement Learning Agents
Reinforcement learning (RL) is a machine learning paradigm concerned with agents that learn to solve tasks by trial and error. While RL has advanced quickly in recent years, learning is, compared to humans, incredibly slow, requiring millions of trials to learn something that a human can learn in hundreds. One key difference is that RL is accomplished tabula rasa, whereas humans come to each new problem with a wealth of prior knowledge about the world, which dramatically accelerates learning. Matching human learning efficiency will require a means of communicating such knowledge to RL agents. We therefore propose RLang, a domain-specific programming language designed to express anything that a human may wish to tell an RL agent. RLang will serve as a direct means of giving such information to an agent, and as a target for automatically translating natural language instructions. No such language currently exists, and the opportunity to develop one and have it see wide uptake would cement Brown’s already prominent reputation in both RL and grounded natural language.  However, a prerequisite for a credible RLang grant is a substantial software-engineering effort, of the type not well suited to AI graduate students. I am therefore applying for funding to hire a Research Assistant--who has experience in software engineering, AI, and natural language--to spend six months building the software infrastructure necessary to support a research program centered on RLang.
PI: George Konidaris, John E. Savage Assistant Professor of Computer Science

The limiting distribution for the number of real roots
Random polynomials occur naturally in various areas of Physics and Mathematics, such as in quantum chaotic systems and approximation theory. The study of random polynomials has a number of applications in computer science and engineering. In addition, studying roots of high-degree polynomials is an important problem in Mathematics that is useful in both pure and applied sciences. The goal of this research project is to study fundamental problems concerning the distribution of roots of random polynomials and, more generally, random functions.  More specifically, the project aims to study the variance and the Central Limit Theorem for the number of real roots of various classical models of random functions. To attack these problems, the PI will develop the local universality method and build on different tools in analysis and probability.
PI: Oanh Nguyen, Assistant Professor of Applied Mathematics

Environmentally Safe (green) Chemical Reactions to Prepare Antiviral & Ion Channel Blocker Analogs
The need to develop and carry out organic chemical reactions under environmentally friendly conditions is a key national goal.  I propose to develop organic reactions that will be done without using organic solvents.  Preliminary results obtained during the summer 2021 suggest that it is possible to prepare new, patentable analogs of antiviral compounds to treat a variety of viral infections including new and existing COVID variants and also analogs of a potent ion channel blocker, tetrodotoxin (TTX), of current interest to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  I seek funds to develop a small-scale reactor for conducting no solvent reactions with reactive organometallic reagents to synthesize new physiologically active compounds. The most impact of this research program is environmental.  Success of this project will lead to a very significant decrease in the quantity of bulk solvents utilized to prepare, transport, store and use organic chemicals. Hence the unifying theme of this proposal is that development and control of organic reactions carried out without the use of solvents and storage/transport of chemical and pharmaceutical compounds is safer, cheaper and more efficient when the reagents are prepared and handled without utilizing toxic organic solvents such as volatile hydrocarbons, halogen containing compounds and/or ether pollutants. These solvents are utilized at the multimillion-ton scale annually. Elimination of these portend a very favorable environmental impact.  I will focus on the synthesis of analogs of antiviral and other physiologically active compounds starting from readily available, non-toxic sugars and monosaccharides to develop green chemical methodology. 
PI: Paul Williard, Professor of Chemistry

Public Health

Leveraging new databases to understand medication use in the post-acute care setting among older adults with hip fracture
Real-world data are critical to understand drug effects in populations that are excluded in randomized controlled trials (RCTs). US Medicare claims are among the most powerful real-world data, given their large size and inclusion of older adults who are often excluded from RCTs. An important area of real-world research for older adults is health outcomes that result from transitions of care (e.g., discharge from a hospital to a post-acute care skilled nursing facility [SNF]). Medication changes during this period are particularly important to understand, as drugs are often started or stopped due to competing health demands. However, Medicare data do not capture medication use in post-acute care SNFs because of bundled payments. Thus, to date, we have been unable to examine medication use and effects in the post-acute care SNF setting. Our team has recently acquired Omnicare long-term care pharmacy data (>60% of US nursing homes) that can be linked to Medicare claims to fill this gap. We propose a pilot project to use Omnicare data in a retrospective cohort study of older adults who experience a hip fracture and are discharged to a SNF for post-acute care. First, we will examine initiation of analgesic regimens post-fracture. Then, we will explore which of a patient’s medications used before the hip fracture are continued or discontinued in the post-acute care SNF setting. This project will provide proof of concept, preliminary data, and an established track record for the team to enhance an R21 proposal on discontinuing medications during transitions of care.
PI: Kaley Hayes, Assistant Professor of Health Services, Policy, and Practice

Bayesian Machine Learning for Sequential Decision-Making with Incomplete Information
In our application of interest, we observe data on children diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML). Patients move through a sequence of treatment courses, with physicians deciding the next treatment given response to past treatments. Our goal is to answer important clinical questions: what would, say, 2-year survival rate have been had patients followed one treatment sequence versus another? Is there an “optimal” sequence that maximizes 2-year survival? In practice, confounding impedes direct attribution of survival improvements purely to the treatment sequence. For example, patients following less aggressive sequences may have better cardiac function throughout and, therefore, better survival prospects even had they followed another sequence. Moreover, adjusting for confounders (e.g. cardiac function) is difficult since they are irregularly measured over time – yielding incomplete information. We propose modeling the decision process via robust, state-of-the-art Bayesian machine learning (ML) methods which simultaneously adjust for confounding and sequentially impute missing values over time. Though motivated by AML, potential applications range from health policy to economics. For instance, public health policies are often rolled out sequentially (e.g. statewide vaccination done county-by-county) and we may be interested in estimating an optimal rollout schedule. Economists often model sequential pricing decisions as firms respond to competitors, with the goal of estimating an optimal pricing strategy. This proposal therefore has intrinsic merit and potential for broad impact in addressing complexities encountered across a range of interdisciplinary areas. Moreover, our findings will help launch a broader future research program developing Bayesian ML methods for sequential decision-making.
PI: Arman Oganisian, Assistant Professor of Biostatistics