Dean’s note

Brick building

Highlighting the resilience of research

The image of the brilliant researcher working alone in the lab is a staple of popular culture, but it is more the exception than the rule. In most disciplines, research is collaborative and highly social. Large teams have cooperated to decode the human genome, detect gravitational waves, piece together historical documents and excavate archeological sites. Today, research is more often than not a team sport.

COVID-19 has challenged that norm. In March 2020, researchers at Princeton, like those at universities across the country, switched off computers and equipment, cleaned out lab refrigerators, and shuttered their labs and offices. They went home to bedrooms, basements and dining rooms to spend the next few months staring at lab mates and collaborators through a two-dimensional screen.

Despite these challenges, Princeton research continued. Princeton researchers continued. They crunched data, wrote up their results, and shared their ideas and insights via videoconferencing. They maintained the social side of science. I cannot help but be impressed and inspired by how well Princeton research thrived throughout the roughly three-month stay-at-home period.

In June, we were fortunate to welcome back a portion of our research community, those whose work requires on-campus equipment. As of this message’s writing (early November), we continue to operate under the principle that work that can be done remotely should continue to be done remotely. We are working to bring back additional researchers as soon as it can be done safely.

If I was impressed by our researchers’ orderly shutdown in March, I am even more impressed with how our community has reopened the labs with thoughtfulness and consideration for one another’s health and safety. Our survey of researchers who have returned to campus showed very high compliance with mask wearing, social distancing, staying home when sick, and other public health measures.

What is more, our research enterprise continues to thrive. Our sponsored research expenditures for fiscal year 2020 were the highest on record, and our faculty continue to submit proposals and obtain funding for COVID-19 research and for other projects. In fact, proposal submissions during this period were the third highest on record. Our faculty and research teams continue to publish high-impact findings in major journals.

I’m particularly proud of how our scientists and scholars are contributing to confronting the pandemic. Early on, Princeton awarded nearly half a million dollars in COVID-19-related research funding that has already led to insights on ways to prevent infection as well as on how the pandemic is affecting the economy and our everyday lives.

COVID-19 is not the only challenge facing our nation in 2020. We continue to confront racial injustice, a major economic crisis, and the undeniable effects of anthropogenic climate change. Several stories in these pages address how research and scholarship at Princeton are helping to address some of these challenges.

The Princeton spirit is indomitable. Our creativity and resourcefulness, not to mention our intellectual leadership, mean that the brilliant researcher, even if working at home due to COVID-19 public health restrictions, is never alone. Princeton is many brilliant researchers working together, for new knowledge, in the nation’s service and the service of humanity.

Pablo Debenedetti
Dean for Research
Class of 1950 Professor in Engineering and Applied Science Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering

Pablo Debenedetti
Dean for Research Pablo Debenedetti, Class of 1950 Professor in Engineering and Applied Science Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering. Photo by Frank Wojciechowski

Princeton pivots toward COVID-19

People walking with masks on

By Catherine Zandonella

Within days of shutting down their laboratories in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in March, Princeton researchers were asking how they could help.

“Many members of the Princeton faculty reached out with requests for opportunities to use their knowledge, ideas and skills to assist in combating the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Dean for Research Pablo Debenedetti, the Class of 1950 Professor in Engineering and Applied Science and a professor of chemical and biological engineering.

In response, the University created a fund of over half a million dollars to support research on COVID-19. The projects, which are still ongoing, range from vaccines and treatments to policy, social and economic topics.

The manual of physical distancing

In the early months of 2020, professors of architecture Paul Lewis and Guy Nordenson realized that the COVID-19 pandemic would make a significant and long-lived impact on cities. New strategies would be needed to rework the design of cities during peak infection and after restrictions are eased.

“The city’s density, historically its greatest asset, is now perceived to be at odds with the realities of the pandemic, and is now a crippling vulnerability,” Lewis said.

Lewis and Nordenson teamed with David Lewis of the Parsons School of Design, Marc Tsurumaki of Columbia University, and a team of architects and designers to create the Manual of Physical Distancing, an online visual tour of how the virus affects the areas where we live, learn, play and work. The manual distills information from universities, institutes and governments into easily understandable graphical explanations.

“We sought to negotiate the incompatibility between the functional density of urban spaces and the protection of health,” Nordenson said.

Domestic violence and the pandemic

As unemployment rose and large numbers of people began working from home, Maria Micaela Sviatschi, assistant professor of economics and public affairs in Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs, recognized the potential for an increase in domestic violence. Roughly 12 million people in America report experiencing domestic violence annually and 35% of the worldwide population has reported at least one incident.

Sviatschi and collaborators quickly assembled a survey of 8,000 women to assess their attitudes and access to information about domestic partner violence, including interventions such as hotlines and counseling. The research team included economist Sofia Amaral of the ifo Institute at the University of Munich, as well as graduate student Lindsey Buck and Associate Professor of Economics Nishith Prakash of the University of Connecticut.

Although the study is not yet complete, some women reported abusive behaviors such as having their phone constantly checked, being isolated from their friends and family, and being told what they can or cannot wear. A small number of women reported physical abuse, and a high proportion of the women reported self-blaming.

COVID-19’s economic impact

To study the effect of business shutdowns and government stimulus on consumer behavior, assistant professors of economics Natalie Cox and Arlene Wong, with coauthors at the University of Chicago, examined credit card and bank account data from millions of customers. They found that household spending plunged similarly across all income levels in March and April, and that government payments appear to have benefited low-income households, which despite job losses, showed faster rebounds in spending than higher-income households.

The uniform spending cuts across all income levels suggest that the economic shutdown, rather than job losses, were likely the primary driver of spending declines.

“Overall declines in spending were much larger than what could be explained by the rise in unemployment,” the authors wrote in a paper published in the summer 2020 special edition of the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity.

The team also concluded that stimulus programs likely played a sizable role in helping to stabilize spending and savings, especially for low-income households.

Therapeutics and vaccines

To make SARS-CoV-2 safer for handling in the laboratory, Alexander Ploss, associate professor of molecular biology, and his team are developing a less virulent version of the virus. The strain, developed by reverse engineering the virus, lacks components needed to infect cells. Researchers can use this non-infectious version to test new therapies.

To search for treatments for SARS-CoV-2 acute respiratory distress syndrome, the team collaborated with scientists at Boston University to develop new mouse models that contain human lung tissue. The Ploss lab and their collaborators in Boston are working on a vaccine against the virus modeled on a successful vaccine against yellow fever.

“In addition to these lines of experiments, we have been able to establish very productive collaborations with others at Princeton to identify components that are essential for SARS-CoV-2 entry and replication,” Ploss said.

Closing the door on COVID-19

When the virus SARS-CoV-2 attacks the body, the virus’s spike proteins must latch onto the human protein ACE2 on the surface of cells to open the door for the virus to enter. Clifford Brangwynne, the June K. Wu ’92 Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, and colleagues are testing small molecules to see if they can block this process.

The researchers’ first step was to develop a way to identify small molecules that thwart the fusion of the virus spike protein with ACE2. The test involves labeling the proteins with colorful fluorescent markers that light up when a molecule successfully stymies spike-ACE2 fusion.

The team is collaborating with colleagues on campus, and around the country, to understand the biophysics of how ACE2 and spike proteins interact, and to study promising small-molecule candidates as treatments for COVID-19. “We are also excited about the potential broader application of this drug-screening approach for other types of common viral infections, particularly those that affect children,” Brangwynne said.





Tempest in a laptop

Ning Lin, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, and her research group use computers to whip up virtual hurricanes that help policymakers evaluate the risks of severe storms in regions such as New York City, where such storms are rare but potentially devastating. Continue Reading →

Of lava lamps and living cells

Professor Clifford Brangwynne sees similarities between living cells and salad dressing, in which oil and vinegar separate according to the laws of physics. The idea has caught on. Continue Reading →

Controllable electron flow in quantum wires

Princeton University researchers have demonstrated a new way of making controllable “quantum wires” in the presence of a magnetic field, according to a new study published online today in the journal Nature. The researchers detected channels Continue Reading →

From Math to Meaning. Artificial intelligence blends algorithms and applications

By Kevin McElwee Artificial intelligence is already a part of everyday life. It helps us answer questions like “Is this email spam?” It identifies friends in online photographs, selects news stories based on our politics Continue Reading →

Turning up the heat on the search for better plastics

By Scott Lyon If you have ever poured hot coffee into a cheap plastic cup, you may recall that sinking feeling as the cup seems to wilt. Not quite solid, not quite liquid, the cup Continue Reading →

Finding meaning among the junk

By Kevin McElwee Only about 10 percent of the human genome are actually genes. The other 90 percent? Once called “junk DNA,” researchers now know that this genetic material contains on-off switches that can activate Continue Reading →

Bold and cold: A new faculty member and a new microscope explore life’s essential molecules

By Kevin McElwee At the end of a long underground hallway on the edge of campus, a door leads to a brightly lit room. Within looms an imposing 12-foot-tall machine, whose array of wires and Continue Reading →