Three Teams Awarded 2020-21 ADVANCE Collaborative Research Seed Grants

Aurora Liu Genin
Aurora Liu Genin

The ADVANCE program has announced that three research teams are recipients of ADVANCE Collaborative Research Seed Grants for 2020-21. These competitive grants aim to foster the development of innovative and equitable collaborative research projects among faculty.  Recognizing longstanding gender gaps in the academy, the National Science Foundation (NSF) funds universities to build institutional transformation programs in order to advance gender equity for faculty in science and engineering. Through the power of collaboration, ADVANCE cultivates faculty equity and inclusion—especially for women and minorities in science and engineering. Three winning teams demonstrated innovative research and well thought-out and equitable collaborations.

One team will be working on the project “Corporate Board Diversity and Disruptive Innovation.”

The principal investigators for this team are:

  • Aurora Liu Genin, assistant professor, department of management
  • Wenting Ma, assistant professor, department of finance

This project explores how human diversity of director boards affect disruptive technological innovation. Corporate leadership diversity has increasingly garnered attention due to its potential socioeconomic impact. However, the ways by which corporate board diversity affects firm value creation remain unclear: recent studies reveal both performance enhancements and penalties attributed to diverse board members. To shed light on this issue, the team will investigate multiple facets of board human diversity and how they influence disruptive technological innovation‚ a linchpin for long-term firm growth, economic, and social value creation.

The second team will be exploring “MAPPING INSTABILITY: The Effects of the Pandemic on the Civic Life of a Small Town.”

The principal investigators for this team are:

  • Narges Mahyar, assistant professor, college of information and computer sciences
  • Pari Riahi, assistant professor, department of architecture
  • Ali Sarvghad, extension associate professor, college of information and computer sciences

This project investigates the impacts of the current pandemic on Amherst residents' civic lives, focusing on mobility, access to collective resources, sense of community, and social connectedness within the town's physical and architectural confines. Collecting rich data from the public is vital for this goal. In-person public data collection methods such as interviews and focus groups are infeasible due to the current crisis. There has been a proliferation of online data collection and public engagement platforms. While online platforms broaden access and increase engagement, they cannot support and sustain dialogue to encourage people to provide deeper insights into their needs and issues. The team will co-design an innovative conversational chatbot that approximates a live conversation. This project makes collected data accessible through equitable channels to citizens and policymakers. It builds upon previous interdisciplinary collaboration that joins forces from Architecture and Computer Science disciplines, fusing research on adaptive reuse, digital civics, and visualization. The team will offer a new model for synergistic and synchronized gathering and transfer of data and its use as it is reflected back to civic society and the city's architectural and urban environment.

The third team will be “Lighting Up Macrophages in Three-Dimensional Tissues.” The principal investigators for this team are:

  • Michelle Farkas, assistant professor, department of chemistry
  • Shelly Peyton, associate professor, department of chemical engineering

Macrophages are unique cells that can both activate and suppress the immune system, by rapidly switching between states often referred to as “M1” (stimulating) and “M2” (suppressing). The balance between these states can be disrupted in cancer and other diseases, which can be disastrous for patients, but also present targets for treatment. There is a critical need for tools to study this interconversion, information vital to being able to stop or reverse immunosuppression. Farkas will develop real-time fluorescent reporters of macrophages to track their changes. Peyton will use the reporters in three-dimensional tissue culture models that mimic the tumor microenvironment to visualize and quantify macrophage-tumor interactions. This work represents the first use of macrophage-based reporters, and the first instance of real-time tracking of macrophage states in a multi-component system. While fluorescent reporters themselves are not a new approach, their application in this manner is vastly different from those of others. By being able to directly visualize the interconversion of macrophages between M1 and M2 phenotypes, the team can for the first time study this process and the conditions under which it occurs, in a spatially and temporally resolved manner, leading to new treatment strategies.

More information on ADVANCE workshops, collaborative research grants, mutual mentoring grants and faculty fellowships is available on the ADVANCE website or by contacting Dessie Clark at