Five UChicago Professors Receive 2022 Sloan Fellowship – Chicago Maroon
Study how we pay attention. Using computers to develop interactive technology. Develop chemical tools to facilitate the drug development process. This is the kind of research five 2022 Sloan Research Fellows from the University of Chicago tackle.
The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation price scholarships early-career researchers specializing in STEM and social sciences in the United States and Canada. Last spring, the foundation announced that 118 scholars had received scholarships along with a $75,000 grant that can be used over a two-year period to offset research expenses.
Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology, Monica Rosenberg studies memory and attention.
Rosenberg led the University Cognition, Attention and Brain Laboratory (CAB) since arriving on campus in 2019. CAB studies fluctuations in attentional states and how changes in focus interact with other mental processes, such as memory and learning.
“Big picture, my lab is interested in how we pay attention,” Rosenberg told The Maroon. “We can all appreciate that. At times, even when we want to focus, we get distracted or wander in the mind, other times it seems relatively easy to focus.
To perform this type of research, Rosenberg uses a variety of techniques, including behavioral experiments, functional MRIs (fMRI), and machine learning. Behavioral experiments, Rosenberg said, are “where people come into the lab or do online studies to assess how attention changes over time and what consequences attention might have on other cognitive processes.”
When the pandemic began and it was no longer possible to bring study participants into the lab, his lab turned to studies focused on data collection.
“We started running online behavioral tasks asking how fluctuations in attention affect learning, and I think this was an opportunity to explore this other area, collecting data from hundreds of participants in line,” Rosenberg said.
Now that the CAB Lab can once again collect data in person, Rosenberg’s team has resumed performing fMRI studies. They obtain fMRI data using the same type of machine used in clinical settings to take structural images, allowing scientists to observe blood flow in the brain and giving them insight beyond what they could derive from a behavioral study. “This allows us to link brain activity to ongoing behavior and cognitive processes,” Rosenberg said.
In one of these projects, a Ph.D. student analyzed existing fMRI data collected from participants watching the first episode of the BBC show *Sherlock*. The data allowed the student to visualize how brain activity changed during the episode.
With the help of the fellowship, Rosenberg hopes to expand his existing research on the interactions between attention and learning while exploring other topics, such as comparing the effects of visual and auditory stimuli on changes in attention. .
She emphasized that the fellowship is a recognition not only of her advancement in psychology research, but also of the contributions of her entire team.
“It’s never just one person doing the work. It’s teamwork,” she said. “I am grateful that this allows my research team—Ph.D. students, masters students, undergraduates, post-docs, a full-time research assistant – to continue their work as well, and so I really see this as an honor for the research team.
Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry, Mark Levin runs an organic chemistry lab that seeks to streamline drug synthesis or development.
According to Levin, a modern drug compound is “a molecule that has been trained for a very specific job: it has to hit the target in your body…but it also has to not hit any of the other things that keep you alive.”
Chemists work with these constraints by modifying the structure of the molecule. Normally, drug development involves the iterative resynthesis of a compound to change its structure, but this can be inefficient, as scientists often have to start from scratch for each change.
Levin and his lab, however, seek to use the power of organic chemistry to make modifier molecules more effective.
“Our job in my lab is to develop the chemical tools that chemists use to jump from one compound to another,” Levin said. “Things would be a lot easier if you could go from one candidate molecule to another in a straightforward way, most of the chemical reactions you would want for that don’t exist. So that’s what we do: we try to bring them into existence, we try to find those reactions that allow you to take a given lead compound and convert it to the next compound.
Levin called the Sloan Fellowship a “really phenomenal vote of confidence” in his lab’s research.
“It comes with a small research grant that you are free to use on any aspect of your research that you wish. It’s also quite liberating because you can use it to increase risk, and I think high-risk, high-reward science is what people want to do.
Pedro Lopes is Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science and Director of the Human-Computer Integration Laboratory. His research focuses on the engineering of equipment that conveys information by interacting directly with the body of the user.
“In traditional computer interfaces, like the ones we have today, there’s more one-way communication,” Lopes said. “It is very rare that the computer helps me to understand physical actions.”
Lopes and members of his lab strive to do just that. One such device teaches users to play simple guitar chords by moving their individual fingers. Such technology could be applied, for example, to teaching sign language, Lopes said.
Lopes’ work also deals with education through virtual experiences. “We could also learn to do things in virtualized environments, but that virtual environment will only be useful if it matches the real world,” Lopes said.
Lopes’ lab is interested in engineering sensations that virtual reality technology currently lacks, including touch, temperature and tingling. One such project the lab has already designed is a device that mimics skin sensations. It has channels through which chemicals can touch human skin and simulate real-world perceptions – for example, mint or methanol could stimulate a sudden feeling of cold.
As interest in virtual reality grows, Lopes attributes some of her lab’s success to the University‘s unique learning environment. While most reality simulation research takes place at institutions specifically focused on electrical engineering, the UChicago students involved in this research come from a variety of academic backgrounds.
“I think the specialty of having this different mindset from UChicago is that people don’t think about technology first,” he said.
According to Lopes, this diversity of backgrounds increases the creativity of student-researchers, allowing them to undertake multi-faceted projects. The lab plans to continue on the foundation it has already established by using the scholarship money to increase student learning.
An assistant professor in the Department of Statistics, Chao Gao studies a wide range of mathematical topics, including nonparametric and high-dimensional statistics, network analysis, and Bayes’ theorem.
Gao’s previous honors include the 2021 Tweedie Fellowship for New Research, an honor given by the Institute of Mathematical Statistics (IMS) in honor of statistician Richard Lewis Tweedie. Additionally, he is a reviewer for Bernoulli and the Electronic Journal of Statistics, two journals published by the International Statistical Institute and the Bernoulli Society for Mathematical Statistics and Probability.
He is now site director at UChicago for the Institute for Data, Economics, Algorithms, and Learning (IDEAL). Originally founded in 2019, IDEAL is a collaboration between Chicago institutions involved in the study of data science and related fields like machine learning under the direction of researchers in mathematics, electrical engineering, economics , law and social sciences.
Speaking about the Sloan Fellowship, Gao told *The Maroon* in an email: “This grant is recognition of our work in mathematical statistics. This will facilitate exciting future research ideas on the interface between statistics and many other fields.
Associate Professor at the Harris School of Public Policy, Peter Ganong conducts research in economics that examines the effect of federal public policies on people facing financial hardship. He has conducted research on the foreclosure crisis, the role of unemployment benefits in supporting the unemployed and, more recently, the effects of Economic Impact Payments and unemployment benefits administered during the pandemic via the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act.
Speaking about the effectiveness and implications of the CARES Act, Ganong, in a Harris press release, said: “The pandemic has demonstrated the potential of government policy to protect households from poverty in the face of unprecedented economic disruption. However, payment design has been constrained by a historic disinvestment in the tax and transfer system.
Bruce Meyer, McCormick Foundation professor at the Harris School of Public Policy and the person who nominated Ganong, praised Ganong’s contributions in Harris’ press release.
“Peter has done groundbreaking research that not only informs government policy, but makes us rethink how households make fundamental choices like how much to spend and whether to pay their mortgage.”
Ganong intends to use the Sloan Fellowship to study the effects of racial inequality of wealth and high liquidity on the US economy, according to the Harris press release.