Five UChicago Professors Awarded 2022 Sloan Research Fellowship

Monica Rosenberg, Mark Levin, Pedro Lopes, Chao Gao, and Peter Ganong were each awarded a $75,000 grant to fund their research over the next two years, beginning September 15.


Courtesy of UChicago News

By Anu Vashist

Studying how we pay attention. Using computer science to develop interactive technology. Developing chemical tools to ease the process of developing drugs. This is the sort of research that the five 2022 Sloan Research Fellows from the University of Chicago are tackling.

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation awards fellowships to early-career scholars who specialize in STEM and social sciences across the U.S. and Canada. This past spring, the foundation announced that 118 academics had been awarded fellowships that come with a $75,000 grant that can be used over a two-year term to offset research expenses.

Monica Rosenberg

Assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, Monica Rosenberg studies memory and attention.

Rosenberg has led the University’s Cognition, Attention, and Brain (CAB) Lab since coming to campus in 2019. CAB researches fluctuations in attentional states and how changes in focus interact with other mental processes, like memory and learning.

“Big picture, my lab is interested in how we pay attention,” Rosenberg told The Maroon. “We can all appreciate that. At some moments, even when we mean to focus, we’re distracted or we’re mind wandering, [but] other times, it feels relatively effortless to focus.”

To perform this type of research, Rosenberg employs 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 studies online to assess how attention changes over time [and] what consequences attention might have for other cognitive processes.”
When the pandemic started and bringing study participants into the lab was no longer feasible, her lab pivoted to the studies focused on data collection.

“We started running some online behavioral tasks asking about how fluctuations in attention impact learning, and I think it was an opportunity to explore this other area, collecting data from hundreds of participants online,” Rosenberg said.

Now that the CAB Lab can collect data in person again, Rosenberg’s team has resumed performing fMRI studies. They obtain fMRI data using the same type of machine as in clinical settings to take structural images, allowing the scientists to observe blood flow in the brain and giving them insight beyond what they could gain from behavioral study. “This allows us to relate brain activity to ongoing behavior and cognitive processes,” Rosenberg said.

In one such project, a Ph.D. student analyzed existing fMRI data collected from participants watching the first episode of the BBC show *Sherlock*. The data enabled the student to visualize how brain activity had changed over the duration of the episode.

With the aid of the fellowship, Rosenberg hopes to expand upon her existing research on the interactions between attention and learning while also exploring other topics, such as comparing the effects of visual and auditory stimuli on attention changes.

She emphasized that the fellowship is a recognition of not only her advancement of psychology research but also the contributions of her entire team.

“It’s never a single person that does the work. It’s a team effort,” she said. “I’m grateful that this allows my research team—Ph.D. students, master’s students, undergraduate students, postdocs, a full-time research assistant—to continue their work as well, and so I really see it as an honor to the research team.”

Mark Levin

Associate professor in the Department of Chemistry, Mark Levin leads an organic chemistry lab that seeks to streamline the synthesis, or development, of medications.

According to Levin, a modern drug compound is “a molecule that’s 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 iteratively resynthesizing a compound to change its structure, but this can be inefficient, as scientists often must begin from scratch for every modification.

Levin and his lab, however, seek to use the power of organic chemistry to make modifying molecules more efficient.

“Our job in my lab is to develop the chemical tools that the chemists use to get from one compound to another,” Levin said. “Things would be a lot simpler if you could get from one drug molecule candidate to the next one in a direct fashion, [but] most of the chemical reactions that you would want in order to do that don’t exist. So that’s what we do: We try to make them exist, we try to find those reactions that allow you to take a given lead compound and convert it to the next compound.”

Levin referred to the Sloan fellowship as “a really phenomenal vote of confidence” in his lab’s research.

“It comes with a small research grant that you’re free to use on whatever aspect of your research you want. That is also pretty liberating because you can use it to further risks, and I think high-risk, high-reward science is what people want to be doing.”

Pedro Lopes
Pedro Lopes is an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and the head of the Human-Computer Integration Lab. His research focuses on engineering equipment that conveys information by directly interacting with the user’s body.

“In the traditional computer interfaces, like the ones we have today, there’s more unidirectional communication,” Lopes said. “It’s very rare that the computer helps me understand the physical actions.”

Lopes and his lab members are working 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’s work also deals with education through virtual experiences.  “We could also learn how to do things in virtualized environments, but that virtual environment is only going to be useful if it matches with the real world,” Lopes said.

Lopes’s lab is interested in engineering the sensations that virtual reality technology is currently lacking, which include touch, temperature, and tingling. One such project the lab has previously designed is a device that mimics skin sensations. It has channels through which chemicals can touch the human skin and simulate real-world perceptions—for example, mint or methanol could stimulate a sudden cold sensation.

As interest in virtual reality increases, Lopes credits some of his lab’s success to the unique learning environment of the University. Whereas most research on simulating reality takes place in institutions specifically focused on electrical engineering, the UChicago students involved with this research come from a variety of academic backgrounds.

“I think the specialty of having this different mindset of UChicago is that people aren’t thinking of the technology first,” he said.

According to Lopes, this diversity in backgrounds increases student researchers’ creativity, enabling them to take on multifaceted projects. The lab plans to continue on the foundation it has already established by using the fellowship money to increase student learning.

Chao Gao
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’s theorem.

Gao’s previous honors include the 2021 Tweedie New Research Award, an honor the Institute of Mathematical Statistics (IMS) gives 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 the 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 areas like machine learning under the direction of researchers in mathematics, electrical engineering, economics, law, and social sciences.

This past summer, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded IDEAL with the “Harnessing the Data Revolution” grant, which provided the program with $10 million so that it could expand and be renewed for the next five years.

Speaking about the Sloan Research Fellowship, Gao told *The Maroon* in an email: “This grant is a recognition of our work on mathematical statistics. It will facilitate future exciting research ideas on the interface between statistics and many other areas.”

Peter Ganong

Associate professor at the Harris School of Public Policy, Peter Ganong performs research in economics that examines the effect of federal public policies on individuals facing financial strain. He has conducted research on the foreclosure crisis, the role of unemployment benefits in supporting unemployed workers, and most recently the effects of Economic Impact Payments and unemployment benefits administered during the pandemic via the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

Speaking of the effectiveness and implications of the CARES Act, Ganong, in a Harris press release, said: “The pandemic demonstrated the potential of government policy to protect households from poverty in the face of unprecedented economic disruption. However, the design of the payments was constrained by historic disinvestment in the tax-and-transfer system.”

Bruce Meyer, the McCormick Foundation Professor at the Harris School of Public Policy and the person who nominated Ganong, praised Ganong’s contributions in the Harris press release.

“Peter has done breakthrough research that not only informs government policy but makes us rethink how households make fundamental choices such as how much to spend and whether to pay their mortgage.”

Ganong intends to use the Sloan fellowship to study the effects of racial wealth inequality and high liquidity on the American economy, according to the Harris press release.