Princeton awards over $500K to rapid, novel and actionable COVID-19 research projects

Catherine Zandonella ・ Office of the Dean for Research

With the aim of accelerating solutions to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, Princeton University has awarded funding to seven new faculty-led research initiatives with strong potential for impact. Among the researchers whose projects were funded are Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI) associated faculty Andrea Graham, Bryan Grenfell, C. Jessica Metcalf, Julien Ayroles and Guy Nordenson. Those projects are listed below.

The funding enables faculty and their teams to address crucial questions in biomedical, health-related and fundamental science, as well as policy, social and economic topics. Projects will receive funding of up to $100,000. The projects include research on asymptomatic transmission, immunity following infection, vaccines, new treatments, contact tracing, economic implications of social distancing, challenges unique to urban environments, and strategies for reducing pandemic-associated domestic violence.

The University’s support for new research against COVID-19 was spurred by a groundswell of requests from faculty, said Dean for Research Pablo Debenedetti, whose office coordinated the application process and the review of the proposals.

“Many members of the Princeton faculty have reached out with requests for opportunities to use their knowledge, ideas and skills to assist in combating the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Debenedetti, the Class of 1950 Professor in Engineering and Applied Science and a professor of chemical and biological engineering. “The quality of the proposals received is a testament to the creativity of our faculty and to their dedication to the common good in this challenging time.”

The seven projects were chosen following a competitive application process with proposals evaluated by a committee of peers. The funding supports the creation of new knowledge rather than production of materials or equipment for clinical purposes, which is being addressed by Princeton’s COVID-19 Response Special Activities and Resources Group. Consideration was given to the unique needs facing the state of New Jersey, as well as the broader needs arising from the pandemic.

Reflecting the immediacy of the situation, researchers must report on their progress after three months, at which time only projects that have made appreciable progress will be allowed to continue. Some projects will require access to laboratories and other campus spaces which are restricted due to New Jersey’s stay-at-home order. These new projects will join a small number of campus-based projects deemed essential following earlier review by the Office of the Dean for Research.

Monitoring SARS-CoV-2 in Princeton: Quantifying viral transmission and building an understanding of immunity

  • Andrea Graham, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology
  • Bryan Grenfell, the Kathryn Briger and Sarah Fenton Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Public Affairs, Woodrow Wilson School
  • C. Jessica Metcalf, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and public affairs, Woodrow Wilson School
  • Julien Ayroles, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics

Researchers will combine viral testing for active infections with evaluations of the immune response of individuals in the community of Princeton to provide much needed resolution on the question of asymptomatic transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19. The project will also provide a foundation from which to probe the development of an immune response to the virus, with the potential to inform our understanding of what the immune response means in terms of protection from infection.

Manual of urban distance: Strategies for reconfiguring the city

  • Guy Nordenson, professor of architecture
  • Paul Lewis, professor of architecture

Physical distancing and urban density are diametrically opposed, so new strategies are needed that rework the design of cities for a beneficial urban future. This project addresses the near-term problems of urban distancing during peak infection, as well as after restrictions are eased but the population is still at risk of a rebound. The second phase of the project will look at longer term and more permanent strategies that consider possible future resurgence of COVID-19 as well as future pandemics.