Technology and humanities combine in annual Innovation Forum

By Beth Jarvie
October 27, 2020

In online presentations at Princeton University's annual Innovation Forum, researchers demonstrated methods to prevent political gerrymandering, potentially treat currently incurable forms of hepatitis and combat drug-resistant bacteria that cause urinary tract infections.

The Sept. 29 forum, in its 15th year, adopted a new approach. In addition to a panel of presenters from the sciences and engineering, the forum featured a presentations from researchers in the humanities. The forum’s sponsors, the Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering Education and the Office of Technology Licensing, joined with the Princeton Humanities Council to create a new track featuring cultural and societal innovations. Keller Center Director Naveen Verma said the societal benefits of research “get dramatically amplified when we come together, and it is these things that push each of us to do better.”

Andrea Goldsmith, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, also emphasized the importance of collaboration. "I truly believe that collaborations between innovators in STEM and the humanities will be essential to developing technology that significantly benefits society," she said.

The winner of the event was Sujit Datta, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering, who has developed a technology with the potential to aid the study and treatment of microbes in the gut, the lung, the skin and in soil.

The nine STEM innovations were presented pitch style, including a short Q&A with judges in research and industry-related fields. The STEM track participants were vying for $30,000 in prize money.

  • Chao Yan, a research associate in mechanical and aerospace engineering, presented his venture to combat environmental waste associated with lithium-ion batteries.
  • Maryam Elfeki, a postdoctoral fellow in chemistry, spoke about her patented platform for high-throughput screening technology of molecules that can activate "silent" genes, enabling the discovery of novel biological products. (Second-place winner)
  • Erik Gilson, a principal research physicist from the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, explained his patented centrifuge technology that enhances the separation of liquids, including isolating sub-micron-sized particles could not previously be efficiently separated. (Third-place winner)
  • A cognitive scientist from the School of Business at Stevens Institute of Technology, Jordan Suchow, developed software in partnership with Princeton University that allows for the easy manipulation of social trait information in hyper-realistic face images.
  • Molecular Biology's Alexander Ploss, an associate professor, presented a treatment that can efficiently combat acute and chronic hepatitis B and E viruses; this innovation has the potential to help over 300 million people worldwide.
  • Dalton Conley, Henry Putnam University Professor in Sociology, designed a virtual slider for online rating of sites and applications. Rather than making it just as easy to give one star, three stars, or five stars, Conley's widget imposes a rising cost to deviating from the middle, improving the quality of the information received.
  • Ph.D. candidate in chemical and biological engineering Cathy Tang developed a solution to treat drug-tolerant bacteria that cause urinary tract infections and to reduce these infections' common recurrence.
  • Caleb Bastian a visiting scientist in the Program in Applied and Computational Mathematics, created a plan to manage world heritage sites by treating them as persons, using medical ethics and comprehensive treatment planning, to restore form and function and maintain and institutionalize sites.
  • Sujit Datta, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering, pitched his platform that enables microbial cells to be arranged—in any desired 3D structure, with any community composition—within a porous matrix having tunable properties. The technology, PoreBiome, has potential to aid the study and treatment of microbes in the gut, the lung, the skin and in soil.

The STEM projects were judged by a diverse panel of technology experts and seasoned entrepreneurs with substantial experience within commercial, government and non-profit environments.

  • Lynn Bleil - board director of Stericycle Inc., Sonova Holding AG and Amicus Therapeutics
  • Linda Brown - former chair and current advisory board member, NJ Economic Development Authority NJ Bioscience Center Incubator
  • Nena Golubovic - physical sciences director, IP Group
  • Todd Laurence - managing director, Thimble Peak Advisors
  • Aaron Price - CEO, TechUnited:NJ
  • Anita Sands - James Wei Visiting Professor in Entrepreneurship 2020-2021

 

Kathleen Crown, executive director of the Humanities Council at Princeton, introduced the forum's social science presenters, noting that core to the council's mission is to incubate and cultivate new and emerging fields of inquiry especially those that require cross-departmental cooperation and collaboration.

The four humanities presenters gave 5-minute TED-style talks followed by feedback from a panel of scholarly innovators. Each of these teams were presented with $1,500 in funding.

  • Preeti Iyer, who earned her undergraduate degree in computer science in 2020, and senior Kyle Barnes presented Representable, a web-based tool designed to collect and analyze crowd-sourced community maps to draw fair legislative districting lines.
     
  • Laurence Ralph, professor of anthropology, presented Animation and Graphics for Justice, a graphic novel and animated film project that exposes the serious long-term harm caused to individuals and their families who enter the juvenile justice system.
     
  • Effie Rentzou, associate professor of French and Italian, presented Poetrygo!, a mobile app that pairs technology and poetry to make poetry more relatable and accessible.
     
  • Brooke Holmes, Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities, and Dan-El Padilla Peralta, associate professor of classics, presented Rupturing Tradition, an experimental graduate seminar bringing together classics scholars and activists in reimagining the study of the Greco-Roman world.

The Humanities feedback panel included professionals with a broad range of knowledge in academic, entrepreneurial and political fields.

  • Deborah Amos - Ferris Professor of Journalism in Residence
  • John Danner - entrepreneurship specialist and lecturer
  • Mauricio Miller - James Wei Visiting Professor in Entrepreneurship 2019-2020
  • Rodney Priestley - professor of chemical and biological engineering and vice dean for innovation
  • Tahesha Way - New Jersey secretary of state

Organizers said the presentations highlighted the importance of the entire University community’s commitment to work together for societal improvement.

"This marriage or merger of world-class science and engineering with the liberal arts and social sciences, embodied by this new Innovation Forum, is what makes innovation at Princeton unique." said Rodney Priestly, Princeton's vice dean for innovation and a professor of chemical and biological engineering.