RIT sponsored research hits another record high

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Among researchers who won awards is Moumita Das, an associate professor in RIT’s School of Physics and Astronomy. (Photo: RIT/A. Sue Weisler)

Once known chiefly for its photography and commercial printing programs, Rochester Institute of Technology is taking its place as a nationally significant science and engineering research center.

As of June 30, the end of its most recently completed fiscal year, RIT had scored a record $82 million in sponsored research grants, a 39 percent boost over its 2018-19 total of $59 million, which also was a record.  

“We’re seeing success in our well-established strong areas like imaging science, color science, and astrophysical sciences, but also in emerging areas including mathematical modeling, optics, STEM education, and biotechnology,” says Sophia Maggelakis, RIT College of Science dean.

In the 2019-20 year, more than 300 RIT researchers were named principal investigators in research projects funded by federal agencies including the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health.

Among researchers who won awards is Moumita Das, an associate professor in RIT’s School of Physics and Astronomy, who won a $559,000 National Science Foundation award to create mathematical models to describe how bacteria compartmentalize functions. She is working with University of Rochester biologists who are investigating a phenomenon called phase separation, a process by which bacteria, which are single-cell organisms, isolate molecules within their confines to perform various functions. 

“We want to see how chromosomes in bacteria organize, and what are the consequences in terms of bacterial functions and properties,” Das says. “Doing a map of that is important.” 

Such research can help scientists better understand and combat diseases. Similar investigations could have bearing on research into the workings of the novel coronavirus, a recently posted paper states.  

Grants won by RIT researchers also include projects falling under the school’s National Institute for the Deaf, one of the largest U.S. institutions of higher learning for the hearing impaired.  

Matt Dye, assistant professor in the RIT/NTID Department of Liberal Studies and Department of Psychology, received a $1 million NIH award to investigate auditory development, cognitive function, and language outcomes in a large group of young deaf adults.

Other RIT researchers to win awards in the 2019-20 year include:

■ Donna Burnette, director of RIT’s K-12 program, who received a $3.5 million Army Education Outreach Program award to support high school apprentices displaced by the COVID-19 pandemic;

■ Bo Yuan, professor and chair of the Department of Computing Security, who won a $2.4 million NSF grant for the Scholarships for Service Program, which takes exceptional BS students majoring in computer science, software engineering or computing security, and places them in accelerated BS/MS programs in computing security; 

■ Jeanne Christman, associate professor in the College of Engineering Technology, who received a $1 million NSF award to use self-determination theory to inform practice on a proposed project to recruit and retain a more diverse pool of students to engineering technology by addressing factors that contribute to the underrepresentation of women, students of color, and those who are deaf or hard of hearing;

■ School of Physics and Astronomy professor Scott Franklin, who received a three-year, $587,000 NSF Building Capacity in STEM Education Research grant; 

■ Seth Hubbard, also a professor in the School of Physics and Astronomy, who received nearly $200,000 to develop low-cost, high-efficiency solar cells; 

■ Assistant Professor Jeyhan Kartaltepe of the School of Physics and Astronomy, who received $444,000 from NSF to perform an in-depth analysis of galaxies over the full COSMOS 2 square degree field using archival spectroscopic data; 

■ Assistant Professor Michael Lam of the same school, who secured a $347,000 award to construct a pulsar interstellar medium array detector; and

■ Andrew Robinson, director of the physics and astronomy school’s astrophysical sciences and technology Ph.D. program, who received 371,000 from NSF to model light echoes from hot dust in the broad line region in active galactic nuclei.

In addition to federal research funding, RIT researchers won $16 million in New York research grants. 

“RIT is quite fortunate to have obtained a record amount of support for its research programs,” Vice President for Research Ryne Raffaelle says. “One thing that we have definitely learned through this pandemic, and the other challenges facing our society, is the importance of academic research. It is gratifying to note that we are doing our part.”

Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer.

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