Simons Foundation Announces Second Class of Pivot Fellowship Recipients

The Simons Foundation is pleased to announce its next class of accomplished researchers who will apply their expertise and talent to a new field in mathematics or the natural sciences.

This year’s class of seven Pivot Fellows will receive support for one year of mentored training in their new field, followed by the opportunity to apply for up to three years of research funding in the new discipline. The program aims to drive innovation and foster collaboration and idea exchanges between fields by encouraging and supporting researchers to explore new areas.

The Pivot Fellowship program, launched in 2022, is open to faculty in the natural sciences, mathematics, engineering, data science and computer science at academic institutions or equivalent positions elsewhere. The fellowships provide salary support as well as research, travel and professional development funding. In addition, mentors will receive a $50,000 research fund to support training the fellow in their lab. At the end of the fellowship year, fellows will be invited to apply for a 3-year research award in the new field for up to $1.5 million over the 3-year period.

Evgueni Filipov

Evgueni Filipov is an associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Michigan. He leads the Deployable and Reconfigurable Structures Lab, where his research is focused on the structural mechanics of thin origami sheets. These unique geometric mechanics are explored and strategically tailored to create deployable, adaptable and functional systems at multiple scales. Through his work, Filipov has created reduced-order analytical models to simulate the mechanics and multiphysics of origami in various scenarios. His research has created origami designs that are stiff and lightweight to enable large-scale origami for applications in civil engineering and architecture. His work has also explored fabrication of functional micro-origami for sensing, robotics and testing of miniature matter.

Through the Simons Foundation Pivot Fellowship, he will enter the field of biomaterials, where he will explore regenerative infrastructure made by growing mycelium fungus within a knitted fabric scaffold. He plans to explore the growth of mycelium hyphae (root) networks and their mechanical interactions with substrate materials and the knitted fabrics. He will characterize the fundamental mechanics of these biohybrid systems as they grow, strengthen, fail and self-heal over their life cycle. Filipov will also create mechanics-based models to simulate, design and optimize the behavior of biohybrid systems. Ultimately this effort will create low-cost regenerative infrastructure with a small CO2 footprint that can grow, strengthen, regrow and self-heal over time.

Jian Shi

Jian Shi currently holds the position of associate professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, as well as the Department of Physics, Applied Physics and Astronomy at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. His current research is focused on gaining a basic understanding of how novel materials’ electrical transport behaviors, spin dynamics and optoelectronic properties are influenced by photons, carrier momentum, symmetry and phonons.

During his Simons Foundation Pivot Fellowship, Shi will work on the design, fabrication and testing of superconducting transmon qubit devices and circuits. Shi will investigate the fundamental mechanisms associated with materials issues underlying the relaxation and dephasing phenomena observed in superconducting transmon qubits. Over the course of the fellowship year, Shi’s overarching goal is to understand and engineer the density and spectra of two-level systems, ultimately achieving the development of qubits with significantly enhanced coherence time.

Katherine de Villiers

Katherine de Villiers is a senior lecturer in the Department of Chemistry and Polymer Science at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. Her research group is focused on understanding the heme detoxification pathway in the malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum. In the absence of the heme oxygenase machinery that is employed by mammals to catabolize heme, these parasites sequester toxic heme in the form of crystalline hemozoin, and disruption of this process underpins the mechanism of action of numerous clinical antimalarial drugs.

As a Simons Foundation Pivot Fellow, she hopes to apply this knowledge to better understand the circumstances under which hemozoin formation becomes relevant in mammals. To this end, de Villiers looks forward to gaining expertise in molecular biology and genetics in order to dissect and understand the molecular pathways that function to regulate cellular heme levels. At the end of the fellowship, she hopes to understand the lysosomal conditions under which mammalian hemozoin formation is initiated, the impact of hemozoin inhibition on heme homeostasis, and whether there are alternate heme transport mechanisms in the absence of HRG1. Directly related to the regulation of heme is iron homeostasis (since iron is the central atom in every heme molecule), and in the future, de Villiers hopes to use her fellowship training to advance the understanding of diseases of excess iron, such as African iron overload.

Lauren Zarzar

Lauren Zarzar is an associate professor at Pennsylvania State University with appointments in the Department of Chemistry (primary) and the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (courtesy). Zarzar’s research interests include responsive systems and active matter, micro-optics and laser microfabrication. Her group at Penn State studies multiphase fluids and emulsions, focusing on understanding how nonequilibrium conditions affect droplet motility and properties of liquid interfaces. Her research team is also investigating microtextured materials that generate optical interference, and structural coloration via multibounce reflection mechanisms. Additionally, Zarzar’s group has developed solvothermal laser processing methods suitable for rapid micropatterning and synthesis of inorganic composites with applications in sensing and catalysis.

The Simons Foundation Pivot Fellowship will support her efforts to transition into the field of bioengineering. Zarzar will pursue research at the University of Pennsylvania under the mentorship of Daniel Hammer, the Alfred G. and Meta A. Ennis Professor of Bioengineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. The overarching questions to be explored relate to the ways in which synthetic biomaterials can be tailored to interact with biological systems to improve outcomes in human health. Higher complexity biomaterials — such as those composed of sequence programmable peptides, polynucleotides or custom lipids, and which have a hierarchical structure (e.g., particles, multiphase capsules) and sense-response action — are critical for future innovations in disease monitoring and treatment. In particular, the research will focus on understanding how biopolymer “compartments” such as coacervates and polymersomes, which can be customized in both biochemistry and structure, interact with and within cells to influence biochemical pathways and states.

Nabil Iqbal

Nabil Iqbal is a professor of mathematical and theoretical physics at Durham University. Iqbal works on a wide variety of topics in theoretical physics and has made contributions to problems in string theory, quantum field theory, gravity and statistical physics. One of his main interests is holographic duality: the idea that a quantum theory of gravity is exactly equivalent to a theory of particles living in one lower dimension. Iqbal has worked extensively on applications of holographic duality, connecting the physics of black holes to that of strongly correlated liquids and understanding holographic measures of quantum entanglement. He has also applied new symmetry principles from quantum field theory to the hydrodynamics of plasmas and the classification of the phases of matter. More recently, he has begun to study applications of machine learning to problems in statistical physics. In general, he is very interested in scientific problems that live at the intersections of different fields.

Iqbal will use the Simons Foundation Pivot Fellowship to lay the foundations of a research program in machine learning, working on a project on geometric deep learning with his mentor Erik Bekkers at the Amsterdam Machine Learning Lab. Iqbal plans to build a new class of neural networks whose architecture encodes the symmetries of conformal invariance, a powerful symmetry group that appears in many places in nature. He hopes that this new class of networks will have applications to problems in computer vision and the characterization of three-dimensional data.

Natasha Blitvic

Natasha Blitvic is a reader in mathematical sciences at Queen Mary University of London. She is a pure mathematician working on the foundations of probability theory. Her research seeks to characterize two classes of probabilistic phenomena: positivity — that is, ways in which probabilistic intuition carries over to unexpected settings, such as algebra or combinatorics — and universality, according to which certain probabilistic structures tend to recur in multiple, seemingly unrelated scenarios.

As a Simons Foundation Pivot Fellow, Blitvic will bring her expertise in describing large-scale consequences of small-scale fluctuations/interactions to bear on scaling problems of marine microbial ecology. She will be hosted by Roman Stocker of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zürich), a pioneer of the direct observation of marine microbial interactions in the laboratory and field. Together they will seek to axiomatize and develop theoretical and experimental frameworks to understand the scaling of marine microbial interactions and describe their cumulative impacts on the marine ecosystem and ultimately the climate.

Rachel Collin

As a marine biologist with expertise in aquatic invertebrates, Rachel Collin focuses on documenting tropical biodiversity and understanding how environmental conditions and climate change impact the reproduction, development and survival of diverse animals. Collin’s research with snails, sea urchins and corals shows how current environmental conditions on tropical reefs and in seagrass meadows may be stressful for their inhabitants. Marine heat waves, hypoxic events and even normal seasonal changes can impact animals’ ability to function. Stressors shape the distribution of each species, and early developmental stages may be particularly vulnerable. Collin has used her specialist knowledge to show that surveys of marine invertebrate larvae reveal biodiversity not recorded during surveys of adult animals. In addition, she is the taxonomic expert on a family of snails (the Calytraeidae) and has described and named a dozen species in this group.

As a Simons Foundation Pivot Fellow, Collin will learn how to study ecosystem processes in coastal wetlands, and their role in global systems and climate change. This will move her focus from animals to plants, soils and microorganisms; from individuals to whole ecosystems and the global climate system; and from low-tech to high-tech instruments and methods. Understanding the biogeochemical processes and the role microbes play in preserving carbon in wetlands and in producing greenhouse gases, such as methane, is vital to understanding the net influence of the ecosystem on our planet’s climate.

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