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Research roundup: Recent grants and publications for Emory faculty and staff

As an academic research institution, Emory’s faculty and staff conduct studies across every discipline, from the sciences to the humanities. Here’s a sample of recent grant awards and the work they will support, plus highlights from some published research findings.


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Publications highlighted:




New approaches to solar fuel production

Emory chemistry professor Tianquan (Tim) Lian is among the investigators involved in the Center for Hybrid Approaches in Solar Energy to Liquid Fuels (CHASE). The U.S. Department of Energy will provide a $40 million award to CHASE to accelerate fundamental research of the production of fuels from sunlight.

The Lian lab focuses on finding sustainable energy solutions through fundamental physical chemistry research involving solar energy conversion. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill leads the CHASE partnership, which encompasses 35 investigators at six institutions, including Emory, Brookhaven National Laboratory, North Carolina State, the University of Pennsylvania and Yale.


NSF funding for study of motor control

Understanding how the brain works could guide the design of robots that mimic aspects of how humans or animals interact with the environment. That principle underlies a group of projects being supported by the National Science Foundation.

Emory assistant professor of physiology Marie-Claude Perreault is a co-principal investigator on a Next Generation Networks for Neuroscience (NeuroNex) project granted $8 million over the next five years. Goals include a better understanding of how the brain orchestrates the control of movement and the creation of better mobile robots and prosthetics. More information is available here, about the Communication, Coordination and Control in Neuromechanical Systems project and others. 

Perreault’s research for the initiative is focused on understanding how descending systems from the brains of small mammals reconfigure neural systems in the spinal cord to enable changes in sensory processing according to motor task demands. She will collaborate with project leader Roger Quinn at Case Western Reserve University, along with Mathew Tresch and Charles Heckman at Northwestern University and Alexander Hunt at Portland State University.


Genomics research and COVID-19 biomarkers

Yerkes National Primate Research Center has received a one-year, $4.1 million grant supplement from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) to track gene expression from 1,000 COVID-19 patients. The project is part of the nationwide IMPACC (Immunophenotyping Assessment in a COVID-19 Cohort) program, and is aimed at developing biomarkers for predicting disease severity and informing treatment decisions.

Lead researcher Steve Bosinger and his team will produce RNA sequencing data from COVID-19 patients’ blood, collected at several time points after infection. Bosinger is assistant professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at Emory University School of Medicine and Emory Vaccine Center, director of the Yerkes Nonhuman Primate Genomics Core and a researcher in the Yerkes Microbiology and Immunology Division. More information is available here.


Cancer predisposition syndrome research support

Winship Cancer Institute hematologist Christopher Porter, director of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Cancer Predisposition Program, received a $400,000 grant from the St. Baldrick’s Foundation for multicenter research in cancer predisposition syndrome in pediatrics. 

Cancer predisposition syndrome refers to a class of inherited or spontaneous genetic mutations that increase the risk of developing cancer at an early age. The Consortium for Childhood Cancer Predisposition involves six additional sites and includes collaboration with Winship’s Madhu Behera and the Winship Research Informatics Shared Resource. More information is available here.


Probing connections between science and religious identity

Candler School of Theology’s associate professor in the practice of sociology of religion and culture Nichole R. Phillips, who also serves as associate faculty in Emory College’s Department of Sociology, has been awarded a $100,000 grant to study how scientific beliefs and attitudes shape religious identity within the Black Christian community, and vice versa. The grant is funded through the Templeton Religious Trust and coordinated by the Issachar Fund in partnership with Rice University and the University of California, San Diego. 

Phillips’ project will examine how contextual factors like race, religion, region, gender and social memory shape the ways in which parishioners — specifically in Black Protestant congregations — think about the interface between the fields of science and religion. Her project is one of 17 funded worldwide and contributing to new scholarship in the sociology of science and religion.


Exploring digital platforms for faith leadership

Candler School of Theology has received a $50,000 grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. to support a new project exploring how digital platforms can strengthen pastoral leadership in times of uncertainty—including the current coronavirus pandemic and a world affected by race and difference. The project will be led by Gregory C. Ellison II, associate professor of pastoral care and counseling at Candler School of Theology.

Ellison’s project, “Fearing Less and Seeking Anchors: Interactive Digital Platforms to Enhance Pastoral Leadership in Uncertain Times,” will address faith leaders’ ability to confront the fears of their congregations while also addressing their own; the essential skills needed to effectively support congregations; the theological resources required to deepen the leadership acumen of decision-makers; and the tools needed for faith leaders to proclaim hard truths that dismantle prejudice and support marginalized individuals and overlooked communities.


Winship pilot grants for lung cancer research

Four Winship investigators are receiving $50,000 pilot grants from the Winship Lung Cancer Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) to support projects focused on career enhancement or developmental research. The Lung Cancer SPORE grant, awarded by the National Cancer Institute, is one of only four in the U.S. dedicated to lung cancer. 

This cycle's Career Enhancement Program pilot grant recipients are Andrey Ivanov, for “Discovery of new therapeutic options for lung cancer patients with lost tumor suppressor genes” and Janna Mouw, for “Deconstructing lung cancer heterogeneity in collective invasion and metastasis.”

The Developmental Research Program pilot grant recipients are Mala Shanmugam for “Role of Hippo signaling in maintaining metabolic heterogeneity for NSCLC metastasis” and Shi-Yong Sun for “Modulation of SREBP1/lipid metabolism in EGFR-targeted lung cancer therapy.”


Two grant awards support forthcoming book

Helen Jin Kim, assistant professor of American religious history at Emory’s Candler School of Theology, has been awarded two grants to support work on her forthcoming book, “Sacred Allies: Cold War South Korea and the Rise of American Evangelicalism.” Kim has received a Louisville Institute First Book Grant for Scholars of Color ($40,000) and a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Stipend ($7,000).

Using bilingual sources from American and Korean archives and oral histories, Kim’s Sacred Allies will uncover a new facet of Pacific-facing U.S. history that argues that networks built during the Korean War (1950-53) were indispensable for making modern American evangelicalism, as revealed in the histories of World Vision, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Campus Crusade for Christ.




‘Roaming reaction’ study and how sunlight splits molecules

Science published an unprecedented look at the mechanics of “roaming reactions,” a mysterious interplay between sunlight and molecules in the atmosphere, which could help make atmospheric modelling more accurate. The theoretical and computational work for the paper was led by Joel Bowman, Emory University professor of chemistry, and Paul Houston from Cornell. The experimental work for the study was led by Scott Kable and Mitchell Quinn, from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, and Meredith Jordan from the University of Sydney.

Roaming reactions, where atoms of compounds split off and orbit other atoms to form unexpected new compounds, were only identified a few years ago and have been poorly understood since. The researchers provided a detailed picture of unusual features in roaming reactions that suggest they straddle the classical and quantum worlds of physics and chemistry. 

The new understanding of the quantum mechanical nature of roaming reactions provides data to help scientists more accurately predict the machinations of reactions in the atmosphere, including models of climate change, urban pollution and ozone depletion.


Structural insights into ribosome decoding

Ribosomes and transfer RNAs are the arena within cells where the genetic code is implemented, piece by piece.

New research from Emory biochemist Christine Dunham’s lab dissects how two structural features of transfer RNAs are necessary for accurate decoding. Graduate student Ha An Nguyen obtained structures of tRNAs bound to ribosomes with alterations that impaired decoding. The results were published in the July 14 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Parenting and intergenerational risks for depression

Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review published work by Emory psychologists to better understand mechanisms in the pathways of risk from depression in mothers to their children’s functioning. The researchers conducted the first systematic review of evidence for one often-proposed mediational model — that problematic parenting at least partly explains associations between mothers’ depression and children’s adverse functioning.

A meta-analysis of 37 published studies found a significant, although small, effect for the mediational model as a whole. The findings provide empirical support for parenting, both positive and negative, as  a mediator of associations between mothers’ depression and a broad range of child functioning. The results suggest that one way to disrupt the intergenerational risks of depression is to help mothers who suffer from depression to enhance their positive parenting and decrease their negative parenting, prioritizing mothers of the youngest children.

The work was led by Emory professor of psychology Sherryl Goodman and Emory graduate student Hannah Simon. Co-authors include former Emory lab manager Christine Kim and former Emory visiting scholar Amanda Shamblaw, a graduate student at Queen’s University in Canada.


Vascular function in South Asians

South Asians tend to have high risk of cardiovascular disease despite lower rates of traditional factors such as obesity and smoking. Seeking an explanation, researchers at Emory Clinical Cardiovascular Research Institute and Emory Global Diabetes Research Center studied measures of vascular function in 530 South Asians recruited from Atlanta-area health fairs, comparing them with data from previous studies on whites and African Americans. 

The results were published in International Journal of Cardiology: Heart and Vasculature. The first author was Unjali Gujral, assistant professor of global health at Rollins School of Public Health.

After correcting for other risk factors, researchers found that South Asians tended to have higher measures of pulse wave reflections (one measure of arterial stiffness). This finding held true even in apparently healthy individuals. More research is needed on whether this aspect of vascular function is associated with cardiovascular disease, the authors conclude.


Neuropeptide VGF as Alzheimer’s disease protection

A small protein known as VGF plays a key role in protecting the brain against Alzheimer’s disease, according to a study published in Nature Communications. The discovery provides a new target for researchers seeking drugs to treat Alzheimer’s. 

Investigators from Emory Brain Health Center contributed to the study, which was conducted by colleagues at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, Mount Sinai spin-out company Sema4 and collaborating institutions. Emory authors include neurologists Allan Levey and James Lah, and biochemists Nicholas Seyfried, Eric Dammer and Duc Duong. 

By mining DNA, RNA, protein and clinical data, the team identified the neuropeptide VGF as the only key driver of a suppressed response across all datasets. VGF regulates formation of fear and spatial memories; levels of it are reduced in the brains and cerebrospinal fluid of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. This is the first time that reduced levels of VGF have been shown to have a causal role in the disease.


Renal insufficiency and cardiology risk factors

Patients with the combination of coronary artery disease and renal insufficiency are at higher risk of poor outcomes, compared to those with coronary artery disease alone. Researchers at Emory Clinical Cardiovascular Research Institute studied how levels of circulating progenitor cells (CPCs) contribute to this risk. CPCs repair damaged blood vessels and low levels reflect a diminished regenerative capacity. The results were published in Journal of the American College of Cardiology: Basic to Translational Science.

Cardiovascular research fellow Anurag Mehta, Institute director Arshed Quyyumi and colleagues analyzed the Emory Cardiovascular Biobank, a registry of people undergoing cardiac catheterization. Data from 1,281 patients (446 with renal insufficiency) indicated that only the patients with renal insufficiency and below median CPC levels had an increased risk (75 percent higher) of cardiovascular death or heart attack events over 3.5 years of follow-up. The researchers concluded that interventions targeting CPC levels in this higher-risk population are warranted.


Impact of garbage burning on South Asia air quality

The burning of garbage in South Asia has a significant impact on regional air pollution and human health, found a study led by Eri Saikawa, associate professor in Emory’s Department of Environmental Sciences. The journal Environmental Science and Technology published the finding. 

Garbage burning in India and Nepal is mostly related to small, yet numerous, open, uncontrolled fires that burn diverse fuels, which makes it difficult to quantify their air emissions. The researchers drew from newly available emission factors from the Nepal Ambient Monitoring and Source Testing Experiment. They used a weather research and forecasting model coupled with chemistry to assess the impact of the emissions. The results showed that garbage burning emissions could increase particulate matter concentrations by nearly 30 percent in India and Nepal and result in approximately 300,000 premature deaths annually from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in the two countries. Controlling these emissions should be one of the top priorities for local environmental regulators, the researchers conclude.

Co-authors of the article include former Emory post-doc Min Zhong, Emory College graduate Qianru Wu and Emory staff scientist Alexander Avramov. Additional authors are from Banaras Hindu University in India, the University of Iowa, the University of Montana and the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development in Nepal.

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