GW Researchers Awarded $7.5 Million to Study Child Health, Solar Cells

GW researchers were awarded federal grants this fall that will allow them to continue groundbreaking research across several fields.

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November 14, 2016

By Kristen Mitchell

George Washington University researchers studying a range of fields were recently awarded grants to continue innovative work to find therapies for improved melanoma survival, distinguish environmental and biological health influences on child health and develop theories on the polarization of neutrons.

Five awards totaled up to $7.5 million in funds available to researchers in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

Environmental Influences on Child Health
CCAS professor of clinical psychology Jody Ganiban was awarded $3.2 million by the National Institutes of Health as part of an initiative to study how environmental factors in early development influence the health of children and adolescents.

Dr. Ganiban and her research partners from Penn State and the University of Oregon will receive funding over a two-year period. They will use already collected data to compare the health and environments of biological siblings who are being raised apart to understand how different settings affect children who may share the same genetic or biological risks.

“Conversely, including genetically unrelated siblings being raised in the same home will enable us to understand how the same environment affects the health of children with very different genetic or biological risks,” she said.

The cohort will be able to shed new light on issues like diet, sleep routines, conflict, screen time and family relationships, Dr. Ganiban said. The ECHO grant extends ongoing work led by Dr. Ganiban that focuses on genetic and environmental factors that contribute to the development of obesity across childhood.

Improving Solar Cells
SEAS Research Professor David Nagel was awarded a $2.6 million grant by the Naval Research Laboratory to continue research to develop more efficient solar cells for many military and commercial applications.

The grant is renewed funding for an ongoing project. Dr. Nagel and three other GW researchers have used different materials—all semiconductors—to maximize multi-junction solar cell performance.

“We want to make solar cells that are highly efficient but are affordable,” Dr. Nagel said.

The United States lags behind countries like Germany that have implemented widespread use of solar energy. The goal of the Naval Research grant is to create and test semiconductor devices that can be used in space and on Earth.

GW also received $900,000 from the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy for related development of more efficient and cost-effective solar cells with concentrators to gather sunlight.

Improving Computers with Light
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Volker Sorger was awarded $620,000 by the U.S. Army Research Office to explore the smallest and most efficient electro-optic modulators for the next generation of the Internet.

On the back panel of a data center you can find a line card with a device that converts the electrical computer data into optical bits. This is the electro-optic modulator and can be considered the work horse of the modern Internet. Current devices are bulky, slow and power draining, Dr. Sorger said. The grant will focus on addressing the modulator’s size, speed and power.

By utilizing an integrated photonics like silicon nanoscale waveguides paired with atom-scale plasmonic optical modes–the study of electromagnetic field and free electrons in a metal–to confine light to the nanometer small dimensions and squeezing the optical mode, researchers aim to increase the light-matter interaction of the device and make it much more efficient. They will use unconventional, two-dimensional materials as an active switching medium.

“These are two to three atom-thin materials with remarkable optical and electrical properties,” he said.

If successful, Dr. Sorger will demonstrate the smallest and most efficient modulators to date.

Investigating Proton, Neutron Structure
Department of Physics researcher Gerald Feldman was awarded $580,000 by the Department of Energy to study the electromagnetic polarizabilities of protons and neutrons contained in light nuclear targets using Compton scattering at Duke University.

Dr. Feldman will direct a photon beam from the High Intensity Gamma-Ray Source at a proton or neutron and observe the pattern of scattered photons coming out of the interaction. This nuclear reaction is called Compton scattering and nuclear physicists can explore the internal structure of protons and neutrons through this interaction with the electromagnetic field of the photon.  Classically, it is more or less analogous to examining how a composite object (i.e. a proton or neutron) “stretches” in response to an applied electrical field.

“Only an object with some finite structure can do this, and so the behavior of a proton or neutron under these conditions can help us understand its internal dynamics,” he said.

The ability of a composite object to polarize either electrically or magnetically has a direct relation to its internal structure. Polarizability is a quantity that helps characterize protons and neutrons, but little is known about the polarizability for neutrons in particular. Determining the internal structure of protons and neutrons is one of the essential goals of nuclear physics, Dr. Feldman said.

Fighting Cancer with the Body’s Defenses
SMHS assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine Alejandro Villagra was awarded $500,000 from the Melanoma Research Foundation to further his work on the use of immunotherapy to treat melanoma.

Dr. Villagra will work alongside Director of the GW Cancer Center Eduardo M. Sotomayor and Deputy Director at the Laura and Isaac Perlmutter Cancer Center at the NYU Langone Medical Center Jeffrey S. Weber. The team has been working for the last five years to merge two different areas of therapy, Dr. Villagra said.

“One is immunotherapy, and the other is working with epigenetic modifiers,” Dr. Villagra said. “In a nutshell, we have found in our data using in vitro and in vivo models, that when you mix these two different therapies, you can actually improve the efficiency of the immune system to attack and control cancer.”

The researchers are not focusing on the tumor itself, he said, but trying to help people’s bodies recognize the cancer and then fight it. The aim is to improve the body’s abilities to fight cancer on its own, without any targeted therapy or chemotherapy.

The grant runs until September 2018.

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