Penn Researchers Receive More Than $1 Million in Kaufman Foundation Awards

University of Pennsylvania researchers will receive five of the 10 grants being awarded this year by the Charles E. Kaufman Foundation, part of The Pittsburgh Foundation, which supports cutting-edge scientific research in chemistry, biology and physics at institutions across Pennsylvania.

Hailing from Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences, School of Engineering and Applied Science and Perelman School of Medicine, the researchers won awards in two categories. New Investigator Research grants entail $150,000 for two years, while New Initiative Research grants are $300,000 for two years.

Awardees in the New Investigator category include:

Maya Capelson, an assistant professor in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology for research on “The Nuclear pore as a novel scaffold for spatial genome organization.” Capelson and her colleagues will investigate the basic mechanisms of how the genome is organized by nuclear scaffolds, such as nuclear pores, and how this organization contributes to turning genes on and off.

Matthew Good, also an assistant professor in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology, for research on “Building synthetic cell-like compartments to investigate the impacts of cell size and shape on intracellular function.” The Good Lab will study the role cell size plays in specifying biological function. Researchers there will develop a synthetic cell system to uncover how cellular dimensions regulate intracellular assembly and gene expression in both healthy and diseased cells.

Amish Patel, assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, for research on “Uncovering the molecular basis for ice recognition by thermal hysteresis proteins.” Fish, insects and other organisms survive in frigid polar environments with the help of specialized proteins that keep their cells from freezing. These proteins bind to nascent ice crystals and prevent them from growing, but how these proteins are able to distinguish between liquid and solid water remains an open question. Patel’s group will address this using specialized molecular simulations, with implications ranging from increasing the freeze tolerance of crop plants to the preservation of transplant organs and frozen foods.

Awardees in the New Initiative Research category include: 

Justin Khoury, associate professor, and Tom Lubensky, the Christopher H. Brown Distinguished Professor of Physics, both in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, for research on “New approach to dark matter.” Khoury and Lubensky will develop a novel cosmological framework in which dark matter is a superfluid. If this framework is correct, the sound waves associated with the superfluid would affect the orbital motion of stars and gas in galaxies, thereby explaining a number of observational puzzles that have emerged in recent years.

Andrea Liu, the Hepburn Professor of Physics, Benjamin Prosser, assistant professor in Medicine’s Department of Physiology and Dennis Discher, the Robert D. Bent Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, for research on “Mechanical signaling in early hearts: theory and experiment.” The research team will test their theoretical idea that in the embryonic heart, cells use mechanical, not electrical, signals to coordinate their contraction in order to pump blood. One prediction is that the embryonic heart starts beating once the tissue, which stiffens as it matures, becomes just stiff enough to support mechanical signaling. Liu and Discher are examining similar stiffening mechanisms and their impact on cancer development in the new NIH-supported Physical Science Oncology at Penn.