Columbia University Invests in Early-Stage, High-Risk Interdisciplinary Research

Rise competition identifies four teams to receive funding for innovative research partnerships


Ngai Yin Yip

NEW YORK, June 24, 2020—Four teams will receive funding through Research Initiatives in Science and Engineering (RISE), one of the largest internal research seed grant competitions within the University, announced Columbia University’s Office of the Executive Vice President for Research. The annual award provides funds for interdisciplinary faculty teams primarily from the basic sciences, engineering, and/or medicine to pursue extremely creative and interdisciplinary fundamental research projects. Each team receives $80,000 per year for up to two years.

Since 2004, the RISE competition has provided Columbia faculty and research scientists with the initial funding necessary to explore paradigm-shifting and high-risk ideas, which normal funding channels would dismiss as too risky or too out-of-the-box without preliminary data. RISE allows our world-class researchers to ask highly-novel questions and propose new methodologies, and catalyzes cross-school collaborations.

The 2020 competition accepted 37 pre-proposals, thereafter inviting eight teams to submit full proposals. Between five and nine reviewers evaluated each full proposal’s interdisciplinary quality, potential impact, and innovation.

“This year, we saw an extraordinary assortment of highly competitive applications,” says Victoria Hamilton, Executive Director of Research Initiatives, and administrator of RISE. “145 reviewers generously lent their time and expertise to help select this year’s high risk, and potentially high-reward proposals the RISE competition seeks to fund. We are very proud of these newly awarded teams and look forward to the scientific impact that may result from their research.”


Take a look inside – Magnetic Resonance Imaging of magma analogues to study volcanic eruptions
Christopher Boyce (Chemical Engineering) & Einat Lev (Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory)

High-resolution measurements of cortical traveling waves for reinforcement learning and decision-making
Jacqueline Gottlieb (Neuroscience) & Joshua Jacobs (Biomedical Engineering)

A novel concept for generating, manipulating, and trapping pure samples of complex organic molecules
Sebastian Will (Physics) & Daniel Wolf Savin (Columbia Astrophysics Lab)

X-ray atomic pair distribution function to understand inter- and intra-molecular interactions of solvent-water systems for application in temperature swing solvent extraction desalination
Ngai Yin Yip (Earth and Environmental Engineering) & Simon Billinge (Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics)

In solvent-water mixtures, inter- and intra-molecular interactions between solvent and water molecules principally govern bulk properties of the mixture. But, currently, virtually no detailed understanding of these interactions exists. This project aims to develop novel atomic pair distribution function (PDF) methods using the synchrotron x-ray at the National Synchrotron Light Source II of Brookhaven National Laboratory, for a mechanistic understanding of the solvent-water molecular interactions in temperature swing solvent extraction (TSSE), a disruptive desalination technology being developed at Columbia University. Pioneering the use of atomic PDF to characterize binary liquid mixtures will be an important stride towards establishing the technique as a standard analytical tool to study the ubiquitous phenomenon of solvation and multi-component liquid mixtures. This interdisciplinary research pools together expertise from two separate and traditionally unassociated fields, Prof. Billinge in synchrotron x-ray PDF method and Prof. Yip in solvent-water chemistry and TSSE desalination.