Magnet levitating above a superconductor
With the support of a National Science Foundation grant, Rajiv Singh, Distinguished Professor of Physics, and colleagues seek to coordinate international efforts to discover new superconductors and other quantum materials. (Argonne National Laboratory/U.S. Department of Energy)

Research Grants in College Rebound to Near-Record High

New awards support wide array of studies ranging from quantum materials to marginalized moms fighting for environmental justice

After closing 2021-22 with a near-record high of $65.7 million in grants and contracts representing 448 projects — the most ever recorded — the UC Davis College of Letters and Science started this year even stronger.

In the first quarter of 2022-23, faculty received more than $25.5 million in research funding, up 37.8 % from the same period last year.

The funding total for 2021-22 was second only to 2018-19, when faculty received a record total of nearly $66.4 million. Last year also marked a rebound from the pandemic, which caused research funding to decline to $46.5 million in 2020-21.

The federal government was the largest provider of grants to the college last year at $40 million. An additional $5.8 million came from the state of California, with the remaining $19.8 million awarded by other sources.

The 2021-22 awards contributed to an overall campus record of $1.07 billion in external research funding.

New awards so far this year support a wide range of research across the humanities, arts, cultural studies, social sciences, mathematics and physical sciences in UC Davis’ largest college.

Below is a sampling of grants awarded from July 1 through Sept. 30, 2022.

Exploring the Periodic Table for quantum materials

Portrait photo of UC Davis physics professor
Rajiv Singh

The Institute for Complex Adaptive Matter headquartered in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and co-directed by Rajiv Singh, Distinguished Professor of Physics, has been awarded a $2 million grant by the National Science Foundation’s Office of International Science and Engineering to accelerate the discovery of quantum materials through international collaborations.

The project seeks to coordinate efforts around the globe to explore the frontier of the Periodic Table. “Advances in the science of quantum materials are driven by progress in synthesis and characterization techniques and by the discovery of new families of superconductors, insulators, strange metals and quantum criticality,” Singh and colleagues wrote in their grant proposal. “Yet, the field is hindered by a lack of coordination, which results in a tendency to cluster around the same subset of materials.”

The research aims to synthesize new quantum materials, develop novel spectroscopic tools for their characterization, and subject the materials to extreme conditions such as ultra-low temperatures and high pressures and magnetic fields. Researchers also seek to exchange personnel and know-how with colleagues across North America, Europe and Japan, train a new generation of scientists, and create a database of quantum materials.

Energy storage and flow batteries

Portrait photo of UC Davis chemist
Louise Berben

Louise Berben, professor of chemistry, received $406,658 from the U.S. Department of the Navy’s Office of Naval Research to buy instrumentation for the design, synthesis and characterization of organic compounds for energy storage, hydrocarbon fuels and electronic materials.

“The instrumentation will be vital in providing a modern education to a broad and diverse community of students and postdoctoral researchers in science and engineering, while providing enhanced capabilities to Department of Defense-funded research projects that are ongoing,” Berben said.

Berben also received a $450,000 Explorer Grant from Bill Gates’ climate organization Breakthrough Energy to advance her research to improve redox flow batteries, which could help sustain the electric grid when solar and wind power are less available. 

Language influencers

Portrait photo of UC Davis linguistics professor
Georgia Zellou

Georgia Zellou, associate professor of linguistics, received $218,555 from the National Science Foundation to study the seeds and spread of sound change in languages.

“Languages are constantly changing,” Zellou said. “A longstanding question in linguistics is how does phonological change come about? The answer to this question is critical to understand, for example, how French developed nasalized vowels from Latin, whereas Spanish did not, or why British English sounds different from American English.”

To examine the variation in patterns of speech production and perception across many individuals within a speech community, Zellou’s team will characterize the speech patterns of 100 people and try to identify how individuals might become innovators of language change by producing novel pronunciation patterns. “We will play the voices of more and less innovative speakers to a separate group of listeners in order to identify how the processes involved in perceiving speech might lead to long-term shifts in community speech patterns,” she said.

Evolution of immunogenetic diversity

UC Davis anthropologist peeking out from behind cave walls
Brenna Henn

Brenna Henn, an associate professor of anthropology, received $88,110 from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus to research genetic variations in the human immune system across the Eastern Hemisphere.

The study will look at human leukocyte antigens (HLA) and killer cell immunoglobulin-like receptors (KIR) in understudied populations from East Asia, South Asia, multiple Pacific Islands and Oceania. Researchers aim to determine geographic patterns of immunogenetic diversity, its functional properties, and how variations have been shaped by natural selection.

“This work will benefit investigations of immune-mediated and infectious disease and in establishment of personalized treatments for individuals both in the USA and worldwide,” Henn said.

Machine learning tools for designing enzymes and metal alloys

Portrait photo of UC Davis math professor
Thomas Strohmer

A cross-disciplinary team led by Thomas Strohmer, a professor of mathematics and director of the Center for Data Science and Artificial Intelligence Research (CeDAR) at UC Davis, received a $1.2 million award from the U.S. Department of Energy to streamline simulations for scientific discoveries.

Key among fields that could benefit are engineering enzymes for creating biofuels and other products, and designing solid solution alloys that could better withstand corrosion and radiation.

“Both applications carry huge potential, but are extremely challenging to simulate in the laboratory,” Strohmer said. “Therefore, one tries to streamline lab simulations by first doing numerical simulations. However, these numerical simulations are computationally way too expensive, since they represent so-called combinatorial optimization problems, which are among the most difficult optimization problems. The goal of this proposal is to develop new mathematical tools to make these numerical simulations several orders of magnitude faster.”

Feminism and environmental justice

Side by side portraits of UC Davis American studies professor and post-doctoral researcher
Julie Sze (left) and José Manuel Santillana Blanco

Professor Julie Sze in the Department of American Studies received $73,000 from the UC Office of the President/Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Humanities Initiative for Hispanic Serving Institutions to create a postdoctoral fellowship for José Manuel Santillana Blanco. An environmental justice and feminist scholar, Santillana Blanco explores how community struggles led by Black, immigrant and Indigenous women have been foundational to our understanding of racialized social life, ecological violence and resistance across the United States.