The McDonnell International Scholars Academy is pleased to announce the recipients of the 2022 Global Incubator Seed Grants. The program aims to stimulate high-impact research initiatives linking WashU faculty and international collaborators.
This year’s awards are made possible by the McDonnell International Scholars Academy and the Office of the Provost’s joint investment of nearly half a million dollars. Projects are in three focus areas – public health, environmental research and digital transformation – aligned with “Here and Next,” the universitywide strategic plan.
The McDonnell Academy’s seed grant initiative was first launched two years ago, thanks to a gift by the Millard family. The key objective is to facilitate collaborative research that yields substantial outcomes, including next-stage funding, publications, clinical interventions, policy impact, and deeper ties between WashU and our partners around the globe. The program has so far resulted in a six-fold return on the initial investment, as previous recipients have been successful in securing external funding in excess of $4 million.
Twenty WashU research teams working across different disciplines and their partners in sixteen countries have been selected to receive funding. Download list of recipients or discover more by reading through the abstracts below.
Washington University will develop an innovative, collaborative model for research and education to meet both longstanding and future threats to public health and well-being across regional, national, and global contexts.
WashU PI: Su-Hsin Chang, Surgery, School of Medicine
Partner institution: National Taiwan University
Cancer has imposed significant health and economic burden in the United States and worldwide. Moreover, cancer health disparities exacerbate this burden and have become an important challenge to the public health endeavor towards cancer prevention and control. This research team will focus on one of the frequently diagnosed hematologic malignancies, multiple myeloma (MM) to study risk factors for MM in Asian populations. MM disparities are long-established with Black populations have higher MM incidence and mortality compared to their White counterparts, but such evidence in Asian populations is lacking. The findings from this international interdisciplinary collaboration will fill this gap to identify risk factors for MM in the Asian population. Findings will inform intervention strategies to reduce MM health disparities.
Partner institution: University of Abuja, Nigeria
Nigeria has among the highest burdens of maternal morbidity and mortality in the world, which is coupled with a rising burden of noncommunicable, chronic diseases due to unhealthy changes in dietary patterns and physical activity, especially during critical life stages. This seed grant will support formative research to adapt a home-based intervention called HEALTH (Healthy Eating Active Living Taught at Home) on intergenerational cardiovascular health among women recruited during the antenatal period and their children in Nigerian primary healthcare centers in collaboration with University of Abuja and Parents as Teachers National Center in St. Louis. Improving maternal health behaviors and subsequent maternal cardiovascular health is a central strategy toward improving family cardiovascular health to blunt and eventually reverse the rising burden of noncommunicable chronic diseases in Nigeria.
WashU PI: Lori Markson, Psychological & Brain Sciences, Arts & Sciences
Partner institution: Tsinghua University, China
How do people decide what is for the public good? Critical to this process is our concept of what the public means. Is it mostly people like me or does it also encompass others who are different from me–whether in race, class, or political views? Our cognitive representations of the public—on the continuum from “people like me (my ingroup)” to “truly diverse”—underlies human behavior about common goods such as public health and environmental protection. For example, do I wear a mask for the sake of elderly people, even though young people (like me) don’t need it? This cross-cultural study aims to uncover the roots of decision-making for the common good by investigating children’s and adults’ notions of the public, factors influencing this such as cultural beliefs and/or social environment, and how varying notions of the public (ingroup vs. diverse) result in differential levels of awareness and trust about public health.
Partner institution: Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Ecuador
Pregnancy and the first year of life are critical periods for infant brain development and represent a crucial area for interventions to support optimal brain growth, especially in low resource populations with long histories of poverty. Dietary interventions during pregnancy have been shown to improve birth weight and fetal brain development while it is also well established that breastfeeding is the optimal method for infant brain development. However, it is unknown if dietary interventions during pregnancy may result in differences in human milk composition and brain development during the first three months of life (the 4th trimester) with its characteristic rapid brain growth. This seed grant will support a pilot study of human milk neurotrophic factors (hormones, nutrients) and infant brain growth measured by ultrasound in a sample of 40 participants from the Mikuna RCT in El Quinche, Ecuador.
WashU PI: Dominic Reeds, Geriatrics and Nutritional Science, School of Medicine
Partner institution: University of Rwanda, Rwamagana Provincial Hospital
Low-income countries such as Rwanda are disproportionately affected by non-communicable diseases such as type 2 diabetes (T2D). In high-income countries (HIC), insulin-resistance associated with obesity/inactivity drives T2D however 2/3 of Rwandans with T2D are lean and physically-active. Clarifying the causes of T2D in Rwanda is critical to inform effective preventive/management strategies. Based on studies conducted in HIC, local guidelines recommend metformin (to reduce insulin-resistance) as first-line therapy however outcomes are poor. In contrast, our data suggests that lack of insulin-production/secretion rather than insulin-resistance drives T2D in Rwanda, implying strategies to improve and preserve pancreatic function may be more effective than current guidelines. The goal of this project is to compare insulin-production, insulin-resistance, lifestyle-related risk-factors and genes associated with pancreatic failure between lean, physically-active Rwandan people with new-onset T2D to a matched group without T2D. These data will inform subsequent medical/behavioral studies to improve prevention and management of T2D in Rwanda.
Partner institution: Makerere University, Uganda
Uganda reports 12 to 29% of children presenting mental health symptoms. Yet, the widespread misconceptions towards mental illness and mental health stigma negatively impact health-seeking behaviors, self-esteem, and social inclusion, resulting in little or no intention to seek help among youth. The use of visuals, when co-created with the target audience, can be effective communication tools to address mental health stigma, including in schools. However, no such interventions exist in schools in Uganda. Building on a recently completed study during which a set of visual solutions focused on mental health awareness and stigma in collaboration with primary school students, the proposed study proposes to pilot-test its impact on increasing mental health awareness and reducing mental health stigma among children in primary schools. The study findings will inform a larger randomized clinical trial study to be submitted to the National Institute of Health.
WashU PI: Michael Sherraden, Brown School
Partner institutions: Beijing City University, China Central University of Finance and Economics, NYU Shanghai, Peking University, Tsinghua University
In China 14million individuals are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), including more than 2 million children. They encounter barriers in accessing healthcare, especially high cost of services. In this pilot study (N=1,000), the team proposes an asset-building strategy through Child Development Accounts (CDAs). This intervention would be a constructive step toward integration of healthcare and financial services. The intervention will support families in accumulating assets for autism-related care and long-term health of their children. The intervention will also provide basic health education and financial education. The project will collect data from families and the CDA administrator. The study will test feasibility of an insurance-based CDA model and track financial outcomes and health service use of families. Findings will yield insights for design of the next research stage—a large-scale experimental test, with policy implications for China and other countries.
WashU PI: Anna Wilke, Political Science, Arts & Sciences
Partner institutions: Tecnológico de Monterrey, Mexico; University of Nigeria; Birkbeck, University of London, UK
Policymakers spend millions of dollars on behavior change campaigns to address public health issues in developing countries. While research suggests such campaigns can be effective, little is known about their potential to generate spillover effects outside the campaigns’ direct audience. This research team conducts two randomized controlled trials (RCTs) to assess the impact of a multi-media social marketing program on attitudes and behaviors related to tobacco usage, HIV prevalence, gender empowerment and financial decision-making among teenagers in Kenya and Nigeria. They study the effects of this campaign on teenage girls who are directly exposed to it and on their social networks. With this seed grant support, they will assess cross-gender spillovers from this campaign, which targets girls, on teenage boys in the same school. Doing so will shed light on whether the effects of female-focused public health campaigns can diffuse across genders and how such effects are conditioned by gender norms.
WashU PI: Tianyu Zhao, Radiation Oncology, School of Medicine
Partner institutions: Makerere University, Uganda Cancer Institute
It is predicted that there will be 24 million new cancer cases per year in 2030 globally, with 75% of cancer deaths in the developing world. Radiotherapy (RT) is an effective and essential therapy for cancer treatment. However, access to advanced RT in low-and middle-income countries (LMICs) has been limited due to the financial burden on underprivileged patients and the lack of RT expertise/training, expensive equipment and software. The goal of this project is to develop a customized and expedited workflow with the Uganda Cancer Institute, a partner Institute of Makerere University Medical School (UCI/MU), to reduce the treatment cost to patients, improve the utilization of advanced RT, and reduce the training requirement for medical professionals in Uganda through automation and deep machine learning. The outcome of this collaborative project will: a) reduce treatment costs and encourage more patients to receive advanced RT; b) enhance the robustness and efficiency of the RT workflow at UCI/MU; c) access the reduction in clinical staffing and training for implementing such treatment scheme in other LMICs in Africa.
Washington University is leveraging connections between research fields to put our researchers on the leading edge of advances in environmental studies.
WashU PI: Wyly Brown, College of Architecture, Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts
Partner institution: Instituto Tecnológico de Costa Rica
This project will explore timber bamboo poles as a fast-growing, carbon negative, and easy to process structural alternative to conventional timber and metal trusses for use in Central and North American applications. Costa Rica has been using bamboo vernacularly as low-cost structural building material for centuries. While many of these structures have stood the test of time, few studies, if any, have been conducted and disseminated that demonstrate the viability of Costa Rican grown timber bamboo for applications that require compliance with structural standards and codes. Combining the experience of Costa Rican bamboo builders, the engineering know-how of the Instituto Tecnológico de Costa Rica with creative prowess from the Sam Fox School, we will design and assess the viability of truss assemblies made of bamboo poles, as well as the structural properties of the material itself.
WashU PI: Jonathan Losos, Biology, Arts & Sciences
Partner institution: University of Hong Kong
Humans are drastically changing the natural ecosystem as they build cities. These cities alter the availability of local resources (e.g. food and shelter) and transform the local species composition (i.e. cities have more nonnative species than surrounding natural areas). Therefore, cities provide an excellent opportunity to understand why and how some species thrive in urban areas while other species simply tolerate urbanization. This research team will use three species of birds, two native species (mourning doves which are native to North America and spotted doves which are native to Asia) and one nonnative species (rock doves, also known as pigeons, which are nonnative in both North America and Asia) to investigate diet composition. Specifically, they will use stable isotope analysis to ask if the nonnative pigeons have a diet comprised of more anthropogenic food when compared with native doves in New York City and Hong Kong.
WashU PI: Jay Turney, Energy, Environmental and Chemical Engineering, McKelvey School of Engineering
Partner institution: Tashkent Institute of Irrigation and Agricultural Mechanization Engineers-National Research University (TIIAME-NRU), Uzbekistan
Air quality in Central Asia is among the worst in the world. Intergovernmental agencies, international development agencies and banks, and other stakeholders engage on air quality in low- and middle-income countries, yet the scientific information underpinning decision-making often is an incomplete patchwork. Furthermore, there is a tendency to lean into “one-size-fits-all” management approaches, leading to misplaced priorities for interventions. Science-based frameworks are needed to drive effective air quality management, and this project will develop air quality conceptual models for Uzbekistan to fill this knowledge void. These models will identify research gaps that should be filled to promote effective air quality management, and will provide a roadmap to prioritize air pollution interventions based on the currently available scientific knowledge. The results will assist Uzbekistan stakeholders to move forward with science-based air quality management and will serve as a use case to develop conceptual models for other countries.
Partner institution: Peking University, China
Global warming creates new and exacerbated challenges for the sustainable development of urban environments. Improving urban preparedness and response to increasing rainfall intensity is one of the critical challenges for urban environments in the face of climate change. This research collaboration with Peking University seeks to address the responses to urban stormwater management challenges. The research team will compare stormwater runoff management in Shanghai and St Louis and investigate barriers to accomplishing ecological innovations for stormwater management under different social contexts. The goal is to bring viable new options to the table and to promote discussion of what St. Louis and cities like it can envision as techniques to address urban stormwater management.
WashU PI: Joshua Yuan, Energy, Environmental, and Chemical Engineering, McKelvey School of Engineering
Partner institution: Chinese University of Hong Kong
The project brings cutting-edge advances from two leading universities to address the daunting challenges of carbon capture and utilization. The teams from WashU and the Chinese University of Hong Kong will collaborate on advancing a new system for combining electrocatalysis and microbial conversion to convert CO2 into valuable products. Joshua Yuan’s team at WashU recently developed a new integrated electro-microbial system to convert CO2 to bioplastics. However, the further advancement of this system relies on the available catalysts to convert CO2 to two-carbon (C2) or three-carbon (C3) intermediates at high efficiency. Dr. Chunshan Song from CUHK is a world-leading expert in catalyst design for CO2 conversion. Dr. Song’s team will work with the WashU team to design new catalysts to improve the conversion of CO2 into C2 and C3 intermediates, which will substantially improve the conversion of CO2 into valuable products like bioplastics and functional proteins, using the new electro-microbial system.
Washington University leverages the unprecedented resources of the computational age to grow the activities of researchers and students working in digital domains to accelerate discovery and address pressing societal challenges
WashU PI: Patrick Crowley, Computer Science, McKelvey School of Engineering
Partner institution: University of Helsinki, Finland
This collaborative international project will initiate a research activity exploring the energy consumption characteristics of digital systems that use the synchronization model of communication, as compared to contemporary systems. This research activity will represent the preliminary work used as motivation for a collaborative joint NSF-Academy of Finland research grant proposal.
WashU PI: Nathan Jacobs, Computer Science, McKelvey School of Engineering
Partner institution: University of Campinas, Brazil
Images of significant events, such as natural and manmade disasters, are often shared directly to social media. These images can be used by forensic analysts to better understand how the events transpired. When an event occurs, the first step is collecting a corpus of potentially relevant imagery. This often results in millions of images, many of which will be irrelevant, including memes and images from similar previous events. Given the scale, manual filtering isn’t possible. This team will develop automated and semi-automated approaches to address this task, which they call ‘event demarcation.’ The primary goal will be reducing the effort of the analyst so they can focus on tasks where they add the most value. The team will develop a collection of methods, and an evaluation benchmark, that will serve as preliminary work for several proposals. This will also be a foundation for a more comprehensive set of tools to support forensic imagery analysts.
Partner institution: Fudan University, China and University of Macau
This project explores the Cultural Revolution as a sonic experience and experiment. People experienced the Cultural Revolution with their ears. They kept up with political messages and the evolving political campaign by means of recorded songs and operas and political radio broadcasting. Amplified by technologies, the sounds of revolution bombarded the population via loudspeakers placed in public arenas and radio sets in private homes. As a sonic experiment, the government remade China’s soundscape by expanding communication infrastructure and utilizing innovative methods of recording and broadcasting. By focusing on the sound of revolution, this project provides an alternative presentation of the Cultural Revolution by arguing that it is more than a sequence of events revolving around the cult of Mao and factional struggles dictated by capital or provincial headquarters. These sonic objects and projects draw our attention to the technology of revolution and the sensory and emotional aspects of political and cultural campaigns. This project attempts to explore the revolutionary soundscape with a focus on the interaction between technology, culture, and politics.
WashU PIs: Margit Tavits, Political Science, Arts & Sciences
Partner institutions: University of Oxford, Rice University
Voter ID is a politically contentious and consequential issue in many democracies. Governments justify it as a measure to combat electoral fraud and increase voter confidence in elections. However, it may also have equality implications by depressing the propensity of underserved and minority groups to register and vote. The vast majority of prior work on the effects of voter ID focuses on the US. However, the US is not a case from which generalizable inferences can easily be drawn to other democracies because of the salience of race in politics and the extent of political polarization. This project will study the behavioral and attitudinal responses of voters to the introduction of voter ID in the UK, a case from which conclusions are much more likely to generalize to other developed democracies. This project will focus on the effects of voter ID in local elections in 2023 to pilot the surveys, establish the collaborations, and secure the funding that will allow us to scale up to a study the effects of voter ID in the next UK general election.
WashU PIs: Renee Thompson, Psychological & Brain Sciences, Arts & Sciences
Partner institutions: University of Melbourne, Australia
Nearly all adolescents use social media, and nearly half report using social media “almost constantly.” Adolescence is also a life stage characterized by high-intensity emotions and difficulties managing emotions. However, little is known about how engagement in different types of social media use is associated with adolescents’ emotional experience as well as efforts to manage their emotions. This study will use a multi-method design, including a standardized laboratory task instructing adolescents to engage in different types of social media use while assessing objective physiological responses. It will also utilize ecological momentary assessment, a method that regularly delivers surveys via participants’ cell phones, to examine the emotional impact of social media use and how adolescents use social media to influence how they feel in their everyday lives. Findings will inform social media use recommendations and future interventions that promote healthy adolescent social media use habits that impact adolescents’ general wellbeing.
Partner institutions: Technion – Israel Institute of Technology
The potential for human-AI collaboration is immense, ranging from healthcare, where AI systems can suggest possible diagnoses that human doctors missed, to industrial manufacturing, where AI-powered robots work on factory floors aside human partners. Existing methods typically optimize AI performance alone without considering human counterparts. To optimize the joint performance of human-AI teams, the AI agent must understand the behavior of its human teammate and make its behavior easily understandable to humans. This research team aims to design an AI teammate that collaborates with its human partner to optimize team performance by: (1) Learning a behavioral model of the human collaborator from observations of their actions; (2) Endowing the AI agent to act explicably so that it is easier for the human collaborator to recognize its plan; and (3) Jointly optimize the inference and explicable tasks with the goal of achieving more effective human-AI collaboration.