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2023 OVPR Seed Awards grant $1.4 million across 21 faculty projects

Awards boost early stage research projects in search for outside funding

<p>Lucas Caretta, an assistant professor in the School of Engineering, noted that the Seed award grants reward &quot;high-risk ideas&quot; and &quot;creativity.&quot;</p>

Lucas Caretta, an assistant professor in the School of Engineering, noted that the Seed award grants reward "high-risk ideas" and "creativity."

Twenty-one projects received Seed awards from the Office of the Vice President for Research in early March and will receive a total of $1.4 million in funding. The winners span a wide variety of disciplines such as the social sciences, physical sciences, life and medical sciences and public health.

The annual awards aim to support strong research projects that need funding to get off the ground, wrote Vice President for Research Jill Pipher in an email to The Herald. The program’s funding supports early-stage work by making researchers “more competitive in applying for external funds” and allowing them “to start new collaborations across disciplines,” she wrote. 

This year’s awards included three categories, according to the OVPR website. Category 1 awards offer up to $50,000 for projects led by a single principal investigator, while category 2 awards offer up to $100,000 for projects with two or more PIs from different disciplines and category 3 awards offer up to $50,000 for one or more PIs who host a workshop at Brown.

The OVPR begins accepting proposals each fall, which are then reviewed by a group of experienced faculty and deans, Pipher wrote. Projects are judged based on their potential impact, likelihood to receive further external funding and their overall feasibility, according to the 2023 OVPR Seed Guidelines. Category 2 and 3 projects are also evaluated based on their potential to establish an interdisciplinary “ongoing, long-term connection that is expected to lead to substantial external research funding through multi-investigator or center types of grants,” according to the guidelines. 


“The Seed (award) is nice because it awards high-risk ideas and creativity,” said Lucas Caretta, assistant professor of engineering. 

Caretta and Gang Xiao, professor of physics and engineering, received a Seed award for their project to improve the function of spintronic devices — electronic devices that utilize the magnetic spin of electrons. 

Specifically, Caretta and Gang are looking to improve a spintronic device called a magnetic tunnel junction — a “well-known” device, Caretta said. But their performance has stagnated over the past decades, as they continue to have high power consumption, poor signal-to-noise ratios and difficulty scaling, he explained. 

“By replacing the materials inside this device, we think we can enhance the performance of the device by several orders of time,” Caretta said. His team plans to use an altar magnet — a special type of magnet — to revamp the device architecture, leading to better speed, expanded bandwidth and decreased latency. These advancements would ultimately improve the memory, computing power and energy efficiency of everyday devices.

“It's an interdisciplinary project that combines device physics and materials engineering,” Caretta explained.

Ellen McCreedy, assistant professor of health services, policy and practice, received a Seed Award for her project testing the effectiveness of wearable sleep devices in monitoring sleep quality of dementia patients. The project involves a new partnership between the Center for Long-Term Care, Quality and Innovation at the School of Public Health and the Human-Computer Interaction Lab in Brown’s Department of Computer Science.

McCreedy is co-leading the project alongside Jeff Huang, associate professor of computer science; Terrie T Wetle, professor of health services, policy and practice; and Rosa Baier MPH’04, professor of the practice of health services, policy and practice.

“Often, people living with dementia have neuropsychiatric symptoms. These might include agitated behaviors, sleep disturbances and mood changes,” McCreedy said. Monitoring sleep, then, is important for monitoring patient progression — but current sleep-measuring devices vary in accuracy, she added.

For this project, researchers are testing the effectiveness of two wearable sleep-measuring devices in collaboration with the Lived Experience Panel, a group of individuals who have either been diagnosed with dementia or have served as the caregiver for a patient with dementia. 

Members of the panel will use these devices, and the researchers will note participants’ critiques and compare self-reported quality of sleep to device measurements to determine their accuracy.


“Getting this preliminary feasibility and acceptability data is really, really helpful at this stage,” McCreedy said. If the sleep-monitoring devices are shown to be accurate, they can be used in larger studies testing the effectiveness of sleep interventions.

Erica Walker, assistant professor of epidemiology, received a Seed award for her project monitoring water quality in Jackson, Mississippi, where a water crisis began last summer. For this project, she is working with Katherine Manz, assistant professor of engineering, and Joseph Braun, associate professor of epidemiology.

Previously, Walker’s lab partnered with faculty and students at The Piney Woods School, a historically Black boarding high school in the greater Jackson area to carry out water testing in the area, according to the project description. After collecting 49 samples and bringing them back to Brown to be analyzed, the team found elevated levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. These chemicals have been linked to adverse health conditions including lowered birth weights, higher risks of some cancers and increased cholesterol levels.

With the seed funding, the group will return to Jackson to test household water quality. Additionally, they will take biological measurements and ask families about the health of their children in order to “understand from a health perspective” the relationship between poor water quality and health outcomes — especially among children — in Jackson, Walker said.

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“Ultimately, I hope that the Seed award can be leveraged to create change,” Walker said. “I would like for the community, my hometown (and) my home state to understand what's going on in the water … and use data to hold elected officials accountable.”

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