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‘Odd-couple’ pairings energize research, win grants

apple-orange-odd-pairingProfessors from opposite ends of UCLA’s campus are teaming up to imagine video games that both the blind and sighted could play together, web-scanning algorithms to analyze  how vaccination rumors can affect behavior, and bus stops with lights that grow brighter as the bus approaches.

The projects include some unexpected faculty partnerships: The video game project unites a computer artist with a psychiatrist. The bus-stop idea includes an urban planner and a computer scientist. And the vaccination study creates the oddest couple of them all, pairing up an expert in Scandinavian folklore with an electrical engineer.
 
All these interdisciplinary projects are getting off the ground thanks to grants that came directly from UCLA, and are designed to increase north- and south-campus collaboration.
 
The relatively new Transdisciplinary Seed Grants come from UCLA’s Office of the Vice Chancellor of Research and the Academic Senate Council on Research, which together provide up to $25,000 per project. By offering grants that are only available when faculty from different fields collaborate, ideas that couldn’t be explored before become possible.
 
“I’m a humanities professor – I have no idea how to set up a web crawl,” said Professor Timothy Tangherlini, who studies how legends and rumors reflect the political environment in which they were formed. A $25,000 UCLA seed grant will allow him to work with Electrical Engineering Professor Vwani Roychowdhury to analyze a database of details like parenting chat rooms from 2006-2011 to see what stories and which people held the most sway in conversations about vaccinations.
 
“We’ll extract a master narrative,” Tangherlini said. “Then we can measure things like vaccination rates for HPV to see how the conversation affected vaccination decisions.”
 
The Transdisciplinary Seed Grant won’t be enough to finish the project, but it will be the kind of advantage the team needs to obtain other grants, Tangherlini said. “The seed money gives us a chance to develop some preliminary results. If you can show early results that your theory has the potential to play out when you ask for additional funding, that gives you a leg up.”
 
Tangherlini and Roychowdhury’s idea won a grant last fall with 10 other projects. The application period for spring grants just opened. Proposals are due by April 27, with details available on the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research website.
 
Another project that received $25,000 will look for the brain mechanisms that make people like some music styles and hate others. The researchers will try to tease out the link between liking music and liking people who share the same taste in music, said Professor Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist working on the project with two musicologists, Robert Fink, chair of the department, and graduate student Zachary Walmark.
 
“Music also creates social bonding,” Iacoboni said in an email. “If I like a type of music like jazz (which I do incidentally, and just got back from a trip to New Orleans that I thoroughly enjoyed), I also feel some level of bonding with other jazz aficionados. So, we think that by studying these brain mechanisms that make us like some music but not other music, we can also get some understanding of the brain mechanisms important for music-mediated social bonding.”
 
Without cross-campus expertise, the project would be impossible, Iacoboni said. “The seed grant funding is absolutely critical for such an interdisciplinary project. It is very difficult to find funding agencies willing to fund such interdisciplinary collaborations.” They hope that what they discover together will generate future funding.
 
Another research team won $15,000 to pursue the intoxicating exploration of the wine-like chicha de molle in ancient Peru, and modern Peruvian viticulture. The team will use archaeology, analytical chemistry and anthropology to examine chicha de molle residue on excavated pottery, and use that to reconstruct where the drink was available more than a millennia ago. That will give them a political map of two important Peruvian states, explained Professor Hans Barnard, an archeologist.
 
“The idea has always been that the Wari did consume chicha de molle and the Tiwanaku did not,” Barnard said. “The distribution pattern that we discover may tell us if this idea is correct and, if so, how the Wari and Tiwanaku states interacted in the valley where we work.”
 
It will involve more than a traditional archeological dig, Barnard said. So far, the project team includes Egyptology Professor Willeke Wendrich, Archaeology Professor Ben Nigra and Neuroscience Professor Kym Faull.
 
“We will have to go to Peru to collect samples and interview the wine growers and do some complicated analysis as well as ethnographical research,” Barnard said. “These things obviously take very different expertise as well as a fair amount of funding.”
 
Going interdisciplinary can be an enlightening experience, said Tangherlini, the professor of folklore, literature and cultural studies in the Scandinavian Section and the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures. A few years ago, a mathematician attended one of his talks and, in turn, invited Tangherlini to a presentation on the mathematics of search.
 
“At first, I thought, ‘What a bizarre invitation,’ and ‘They must have the wrong person,’” he recalled. “But it was transformative. I learned about algorithmic solutions for tricky problems. With the Internet, what do you do with a million stories? You can’t read them all. But you can start working with computer scientists and engineers, like I did, to find what all these stories are saying.”