A challenge to help kids

By Yasemin Saplakoglu

A collaborative approach to sociology aims to target fundamental and perhaps overlooked issues to improve policies that affect the lives of disadvantaged children.

The effort, called the Fragile Families Challenge, brings together researchers from around the world, most of whom haven’t met before, to ask them to analyze existing data and create models that can identify problems and lead to potential policy solutions.

“I am very excited about the idea of seeing what it is that we can all do together that none of us can really do alone,” Matthew Salganik, a professor of sociology and one of the founders of the challenge, said. “Hundreds of biologists worked on the human genome project and thousands of physicists worked on the search for the Higgs boson, so what would happen if hundreds or thousands of social and data scientists work together on this problem?”

Analyses of data on families can inform sociologists about trends that affect children’s well-being. For example, researchers might earn that “eviction is related to poor school performance,” which can be useful for policy decisions.

Download this article as a PDF

To improve these analyses, Salganik and colleagues sent a request to researchers from across the globe to create predictive models using data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, which has been following nearly 5,000 U.S.-born children since their birth. The challenge for the scientists was to use data on children ranging from birth to age 9 to create models that would successfully predict the well-being of the families when the children reached age 15. Then Salganik and his team compared the predictions to how well the families were actually doing in terms of outcomes such as material hardship, eviction and layoffs.

Salganik and his colleagues combined the most accurate of these models — those that came closest to predicting the real conditions of the families — into a single community model that can be used by other researchers. They are now conducting interviews with the teenagers and their parents to discover important factors that even the best models didn’t account for.

New arts complex opens

By Staff

Performance space with piano

The new 22-acre Lewis Arts complex includes spaces for the creation and performance of dance, theater, music and more.
PHOTO BY DENISE APPLEWHITE

The new 22-acre Lewis Arts complex includes spaces for the creation and performance of dance, theater, music and more.

The new multi-building Lewis Arts complex on the south edge of campus significantly expands the performance, rehearsal and teaching spaces for the arts at Princeton. The complex anchors a 22-acre development that includes two restaurants, a convenience store and the new Princeton train station, surrounded by a park-like setting with extensive landscaped plazas, pathways and green spaces.

The complex houses the Lewis Center for the Arts’ programs in dance, theater, music theater and the Princeton Atelier — a unique academic program that brings together professional artists from different disciplines to create new work — as well as additional rehearsal and instructional facilities for the Department of Music.

New journal highlights student research

By Yasemin Saplakoglu

Cover of journal

The inaugural Princeton Undergraduate Research Journal

This spring marked the debut of the Princeton Undergraduate Research Journal, a peer-reviewed publication where students can publish original research findings. “The entire goal of research is to communicate new discoveries to a larger academic community,” said Daniel D. Liu, who co-founded the journal with fellow Class of 2018 student Yash M. Patel. “We felt that a lot of valuable independent work by Princeton undergraduates was going unnoticed.” The journal, peer-reviewed by an executive board of undergraduates and by a faculty advisory board, is open access, meaning it is available for anyone to read online. Liu and Patel aimed to introduce under- graduates to the process of peer review and to implement a rigorous review process parallel to that of established academic journals.

The editorial board encourages submissions from a broad range of disciplines from the sciences to the humanities and arts. “I personally have learned a lot about what’s going on in other disciplines by going through this process, and I’m hoping that other readers of the journal will also,” said Liu, who is majoring in molecular biology. The team plans to distribute the publication to prospective students and alumni. Interested undergraduates can submit their original research findings at purj.org.

Self-powered system makes smart windows smarter

By Sharon Adarlo

A new solar cell technology could make it inexpensive to create and install smart windows that automatically vary their tint to augment lighting, heating and cooling systems in buildings.

The new transparent solar cells selectively absorb near- ultraviolet (UV) light and convert it to electricity that powers chemical reactions to lighten or darken the glass of the smart window as needed. Smart windows are usually bulky to install because they require an external power source. The new solar cells allow smart windows to be self-powered and occupy the same footprint as the glass.

Gloved hand holding glass

Graduate student Nicholas Davy holds a sample of glass that uses near-ultraviolet light to generate electricity, which powers chemical reactions that lighten or darken the glass.
PHOTO BY DAVID KELLY CROW

“We wanted the smart window to dynamically control the amount of natural light and heat that can come inside, saving on energy costs and making the space more comfortable,” said Yueh-Lin (Lynn) Loo, director of the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, the Theodora D. ’78 and William H. Walton III ’74 Professor in Engineering, and professor of chemical and biological engineering.

The study, published June 30, 2017, in the journal Nature Energy, received funding from the National Science Foundation.

Nicholas Davy, a doctoral student in the chemical and biological engineering department and the paper’s first author, said the new transparent near-UV solar cells are better suited to power smart windows than existing transparent solar cells, which target the infrared portion of sunlight and thus complicate the control of heat.

The Princeton team’s aim is to create a flexible version of the solar-powered smart window system that can be applied to existing windows via lamination. Davy and Loo have started a company called Andluca Technologies to bring this energy-saving solution to residential and commercial buildings.

Download this article as a PDF

Probing the genetic basis for dog-human relationships

By Pooja Makhijani

A new study has identified genetic changes that are linked to dogs’ human-directed social behaviors and suggests there is a common underlying genetic basis for hyper-social behavior in both dogs and humans.

An interdisciplinary team of researchers, including those from Princeton University, sequenced a region of chromosome 6 in dogs and found multiple sections of canine DNA that were associated with differences in social behavior. In many cases, unique genetic insertions called transposons in the Williams-Beuren syndrome critical region were strongly associated with the tendency to seek out humans for physical contact, assistance and information.

Emily Shuldiner

Emily Shuldiner, Class of 2016, was a co-first author on a study published in the journal Science Advances on genetic changes linked to dogs’ social behaviors toward humans. PHOTO BY ALEXIS BAILEY

In contrast, in humans, it is the deletion of genes from the counterpart of this region on the human genome, rather than insertions, that causes Williams-Beuren syndrome, a congenital disorder characterized by hyper-social traits such as exceptional gregariousness. The study, which was supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, was published July 19, 2017, in Science Advances.

“It was the remarkable similarity between the behavioral presentation of Williams-Beuren syndrome and the friendliness of domesticated dogs that suggested to us that there may be similarities in the genetic architecture of the two phenotypes,” said Bridgett vonHoldt, an assistant professor in ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton and the study’s lead author.

Emily Shuldiner, Class of 2016 and a co-first author, pinpointed the commonalities in the genetic architecture of Williams-Beuren syndrome and canine tameness as part of her senior thesis research.

VonHoldt’s findings suggest that only a few transposons on this region likely govern a complex set of social behaviors. “We haven’t found a ‘social gene,’ but rather an important [genetic] component that shapes animal personality and assisted the process of domesticating a wild wolf into a tame dog,” she said.

Download this article as a PDF