Home / News / What’s your story: PCI Annual Symposium Marks Sixth Birthday with Lively Talks

What’s your story: PCI Annual Symposium Marks Sixth Birthday with Lively Talks

Uncategorized- - By Wendy Plump
Michael Skinnider, assistant professor at the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics and Ludwig Princeton Branch, during his presentation at the 2024 Princeton Catalysis Initiative Symposium last month.
Photo by Phil McAuliffe

In a daylong story fest at Frick Laboratory last month, the Princeton Catalysis Initiative (PCI) celebrated its Sixth Annual Symposium with research flash talks that drew diverse fields into the limelight and highlighted its expanding appeal among Princeton faculty.

The Symposium challenged speakers to tell their best research stories in under eight minutes. Meanwhile, faculty members and industry partners in the audience listened, alert for blue-sky ideas offering fresh collaborations. Even after multiple symposia stretching back to 2018, the format still makes for a lively look at what’s new, what’s up-and-coming, and what’s “fascinating” on Princeton’s research front.

This year, there were talks from fields that don’t often co-mingle with the natural sciences. Sociology, Music, and the School of Public and International Affairs, for example, joined stalwarts from the departments of Computer Science, Molecular Biology, Engineering, Chemistry, and Genomics that have been a part of PCI since its inception.

In 2017, David MacMillan, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Chemistry, and several colleagues founded PCI as a way to catalyze new research partnerships on campus and with industry. Today, 500 collaborations across 12 departments are backed by $100M in committed funding.

“The idea was, if you think of all the cutting-edge research going on in all these departments and you could connect them at the intersections, could you create new research fields?” said MacMillan in his opening remarks at the May 22 event. “And could you do that not just once, but as a routine mechanism?

“That’s what we call catalysis beyond chemistry. That’s why we’re here today.”

Assistant Professor of Molecular Biology John Brooks, who spoke on his research on the maintenance of the intestinal epithelial barrier.

Photo by Phil McAuliffe

Lydia Lynch, professor of Molecular Biology and the Ludwig Princeton Branch, was attending and presenting for the first time. “For me, being new, this was a great way to get a snapshot of the exciting work going on in Princeton,” she said. “I have seen flash talks before, but these were different. I learned so much. They were broad, but understandable. I was also surprised by some of the collaboration discussions that came up with presenters from completely different fields at the reception including, for example, one I had with a climate scientist who asked an immunology question.”

Callie Bryan is scientific director at Janssen/Johnson & Johnson who has attended PCI symposia for several years. Each event, she said, offers the chance for industry members to see beyond the papers published in isolated journals to the bigger ideas behind them.

“The research is always so nascent, so cutting edge, and they link it in such a way that you can make the next jump,” Bryan said. “You’re listening to fascinating researchers all day. When they jump from topic to topic and they riff on each other, you get all of these ideas. Put them together, and that’s when you get the lightbulbs.”

With topics ranging from quantum engineering to human-centered decarbonization strategies to the regulation of microbial proteins across the day-night cycle, faculty presenters laid out their work in four sessions. Afterwards, they fielded questions from peers and representatives of PCI’s six industry partners that augured deeper conversations in the months ahead.

Sociology's Janet Vertesi talks about her work on organization strategies and outcomes for research.

Photo by Phil McAuliffe

Here is a sampling of presentation comments:

 ·      “Many of the most important kinds of thoughts that people sustain don’t happen in context of a task. I’m thinking here about daydreaming. Maybe you were on a walk, and you had some insight about mice and cancer. So, really understanding how those more unconstrained periods of thought happen is what my research is all about. That’s where music becomes key. Because it turns out, people daydream a lot when they’re listening to music.” Elizabeth Margulis, professor of music and director of graduate studies in Musicology.

 ·      “How can you take rich spectroscopy data and link it back to the structure of the small molecules that were detected? That, unfortunately, turns out to be sufficiently difficult that today in any routine mass spec-based metabolomic study, less than 10% of the small molecules that were present in that sample will actually be identified. So, I think there’s a huge opportunity to illuminate this chemical dark matter by developing new computational tools.” Michael Skinnider, assistant professor at the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics and Ludwig Princeton Branch.

 ·      “I study you. My investigations examine how the science teams that we work on impact the kind of science that we end up doing, the kind of scientists that we inspire, and the kind of data that we produce. In interdisciplinary collaborations, you have an opportunity to maybe put the goals of that collaboration alongside the way you’re going to build your team. And that might inform your organizational orientation.” Janet Vertesi, associate professor of sociology and author of the recent book, “Shaping Science: Organizations, Decisions, and Culture on NASA’s Teams.”

·      “At best, with the commercial virtual reality headsets that we have today, you’re holding a controller in your hand that maybe vibrates once in a while. But when we think about how we interact with the physical world, we feel a lot of textures, we feel stiffness and the weight of materials. This allows us to really improvise with objects and perform dexterous manipulation. This is one aspect of VR that I’ve focused on – what are the ways we can bring a sense of touch to VR?” Parastoo Abtahi, assistant professor of computer science.

Wei Peng, assistant professor at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.

Photo by Phil McAuliffe

Researchers interested in working with the Princeton Catalysis Initiative are encouraged to apply for project funding by contacting Ian Davies, director of PCI. Applications are due at the end of this month. For more information on the 2024 request for project proposals or to view the flash talks from this year’s Symposium, visit the News section of the PCI website.

The Princeton Catalysis Initiative acknowledges generous support from Anthony Evnin ’62 and Eric ’76 and Wendy Schmidt through the Schmidt DataX Fund.