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News, Science & Research

University honors associate, assistant professors with Early Career Research Achievement Awards

Four faculty members received awards this month for research, scholarship in humanities, sciences

By
Staff Writer
Sunday, April 19, 2020
This article is part of the series University 2020 Research Achievement Awards

Nicolas Fawzi is studying a class of RNA processing assemblies whose dysfunction has implications for several neurodegenerative diseases, including ALS.

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Sylvia Chiang dedicates a space in a local health center for use in prenatal care activities.

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RaMell Ross directed the Academy-Award winning documentary film "Hale County, This Morning This Evening."

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Anita Shukla aims to create biomaterials for use in drug delivery and regenerative medicine. Previously, she worked to develop an antibacterial coating for IV catheters.

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Seven University faculty members received 2020 Research Achievement Awards this year for their research and scholarly contributions across disciplines including the arts, medicine, engineering and molecular science. An exceptional four researchers were awarded an Early Career Research Achievement Award. 

Now entering their fourth year, the Research Achievement Awards “acknowledge the significance of research at the (University) and recognize some of the extraordinary faculty who are making these contributions,” Vice President for Research Jill Pipher wrote in an email to The Herald. 

While typically six researchers are selected for these awards — three for the Early Career and three for the Distinguished Research Achievement Awards — seven total winners were chosen this year. “We were especially struck by the terrific nominations for junior faculty,” Pipher said. “We decided to make four of those awards in (the Early Career) category.” 

This installment of a two-part series highlights the Early Career Research Achievement Awards, given to selected assistant professors and new associate professors in the fields of humanities and social sciences, physical sciences and life sciences and public health, according to the University website.

RaMell Ross relays life through multimedia works

Assistant Professor of Visual Arts RaMell Ross uses photography, film and art as a means for knowledge production “to have more experiential connections to ideas, social concepts and social constructs in an effort to see what the material, conceptual world is made out of,” Ross said. 

Ross is the director, cinematographer, film editor and co-writer of the Academy Award-nominated documentary film “Hale County This Morning, This Evening,” which looks at the lives of two men in Hale County, Alabama, over the course of five years. The film explores “art, ideas of Blackness, ideas of community and ideas of the origins of people who look like myself and have very similar experiences to myself in the U.S.,” Ross said. 

Ross views “live-the-life” fieldwork as vital to understanding what it’s like to be a person in global society. Having spent a significant amount of time in Hale County, Ross experienced a life similar to those whose stories he eventually conveyed to his film’s audiences. 

Ross digs into the way that language and literature shapes the world, applying the information he uncovers to his visual pursuits. Compared to the laboratory work that may come to mind when one considers research, Ross’ research is “academic, but not held to the same standards of verifiability,” he said. “It’s great because you have the freedom to let everything that is ineffable and intangible be the content and truth.” 

Having studied photography at the Rhode Island School of Design, Ross defines his art as an “approach to moments.” 

The most commonly held pursuit in photography is the action shot — a frozen moment — which Ross considers “almost dangerous.” To him, freezing moments like this “problematically excludes larger notions of the individual person and individual experiences,” he said. “It caters quite naturally to our imagination in ways that reinforce ideology and our personally held beliefs.” 

In his documentaries, Ross focuses on capturing life authentically and in its entirety — “not trying to wrap something up with a neat bow.” 

When it comes to the process of making his multimedia creations, “there’s nothing better.” He has a personal project, tentatively called the “Black Dictionary,” in the works, “but I’ll leave it at that,” Ross said. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has posed a challenge to his work, “but with all challenges come really interesting things, and I’m excited to see what people make.”

Silvia Chiang addresses adolescent, pediatric tuberculosis

Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and a physician specializing in pediatric infectious disease Silvia Chiang studies the clinical and epidemiological aspects of pediatric tuberculosis. In addition to researching tuberculosis and its many implications in public health, environment and society, Chiang has enjoyed working in Peru. For almost a decade, she has collaborated with a branch of Partners In Health in Peru, known as Socios En Salud, to conduct her research. 

Chiang has investigated the barriers in diagnosis and treatment of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis in children, but she has increasingly turned her attention to the disease in adolescents, Chiang wrote in an email to The Herald. 

Adolescents are “a neglected patient population” that has not been thoroughly studied in this context, Chiang wrote. But adolescents have shown to have poor adherence to tuberculosis treatment, and the disease can impact their physical, social and psychological development. 

To help fill this gap in research, Chiang is conducting a survey-based study on about 250 adolescents in Lima, Peru to “identify the risk factors for poor adherence to treatment.” She has also received funding for a follow-up study, she wrote. 

“Since college I have been inspired to focus my career on improving health outcomes for poor, marginalized patients,” Chiang wrote. “I have always loved living abroad and examining health in different cultural and social contexts.”

She is also thankful for her “amazing mentors and colleagues who have taught me so much and provided me with so many research opportunities,” she added.

Nicolas Fawzi examines molecular assemblies, ALS

Associate Professor of Molecular Pharmacology, Physiology and Biotechnology Nicolas Fawzi focuses on understanding RNA processing assemblies that have dysfunctions associated with neurodegenerative diseases, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly referred to as ALS. 

Fawzi uses a technique known as NMR spectroscopy to study the intricacies of these biological molecules. “You can change two atoms and have a fatal neurodegenerative disease with no cure, (so) we need atomically detailed information to understand what we can do about them,” Fawzi said. 

Fawzi uses the same technique to examine proteins of interest, which he overproduces in bacterial cells. He has studied how proteins clump together to form aggregates in neurodegenerative diseases like ALS since he was a graduate student, but only during his time at the University has the involvement of RNA processing assembly proteins been understood. The gap in knowledge about how this protein behavior at a molecular level leads to disease and its potential role in cancer have motivated his research. “I’m interested in seeing how life and these molecules work, … something that’s too small to see (with the naked eye), but we have the ability to look at and understand it,” said Fawzi. 

One of the most enjoyable parts of his job is working with talented students, who contribute great ideas. “All this work is only made possible by the effort of people I work within the laboratory; a majority of those are Brown undergraduate and graduate students,” said Fawzi. 

Looking forward, Fawzi will continue to focus on how prevention of aggregation of protein TDP-43 can lead to the prevention and treatment of ALS. In collaboration with others, he aims to move the study of these assemblies from test tubes to live cells.

Though most of Fawzi’s laboratory research has been halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, his research meetings, plans and preparations are still ongoing via Zoom. Fawzi and his colleagues in structural biology, led by Assistant Research Professor of Molecular Pharmacology, Physiology and Biotechnology Mandar Naik, are also starting to look into proteins associated with SARS-CoV-2, the virus strain responsible for COVID-19. 

Anita Shukla designs for medicine

Assistant Professor of Engineering Anita Shukla aims to create biomaterials for use in drug delivery and regenerative medicine, according to a University press release. Shukla’s contributions to this field include materials designed to reduce infections, The Herald previously reported

These four recipients join three other University professors honored with the Distinguished Research Achievement Awards.

“An institution-wide award like this is an important milestone for faculty members in their records of achievement. We hope it will lead to even more external recognition for them,” Pipher wrote.

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