Nieng Yan to Receive Dean for Research Innovation Funds

Written by
Office of the Dean for Research, Catherine Zandonella, Princeton University
May 28, 2019

A wide-ranging collection of new research projects from disciplines across campus have been selected to receive Princeton funding through the Dean for Research Innovation Funds.

The funding program encourages ideas and collaborations that push the boundaries of conventional areas and may be at too early a stage to find backing from external grants. This year’s awards will support a wide range of initiatives in the natural sciences, humanities and social sciences, as well as spurring research collaborations with industry and promoting sustainability research using the campus as a lab.

“Through this mechanism, Princeton demonstrates support for innovative proposals that have the potential to make a difference in their field and across disciplines,” said Dean for Research Pablo Debenedetti, the Class of 1950 Professor in Engineering and Applied Science and professor of chemical and biological engineering. “Opportunities like these impact the quality of both the faculty members that we are able to attract to Princeton, and the research that they are able to do once here.”

The winning proposals were selected based on their quality, originality and potential for impact through anonymous review by Princeton peers knowledgeable in the discipline being explored.

Tiny cellular gatekeepers at work

Nieng Yan, the Shirley M. Tilghman Professor of Molecular Biology, will lead the development of a new twist on a powerful technique, known as cryo-electron microscopy, to observe the workings of channels in the cell membrane that control the flow of charged atoms, or ions. To see these tiny structures using cryo-EM, researchers must first separate the proteins from the cell membranes, but this step destroys the ability to respond to electrical signals.

Yan and her team plan to restore the electrical responsiveness by innovating a thin conductive film that will lie under the proteins and provide a voltage. The goal is to learn more about how the channels behave, giving insights into the development of treatments for conditions including chronic pain, epileptic seizures and cardiac arrhythmias.