Zongqi Xia in a black suit and white dress shirt

Zongqi Xia named fellow for research initiative

Zongqi Xia, assistant professor of neurology and biomedical informatics, was named a fellow for Research Corporation for Science Advancement’s (RCSA) new Scialog initiative, “Microbiome, Neurobiology and Disease.”

Scialog is short for “science + dialog.” Scialog initiatives bring together early-career scientists from a variety of disciplines to focus their collective thinking on issues of global importance, awarding funding to promising multidisciplinary research projects.  

Co-sponsored by RCSA, the Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group and the Frederick Gardner Cottrell Foundation, the program begins with its inaugural virtual conference on April 22-23, 2021. Three yearly conferences are planned. 

Microbiome, Neurobiology and Disease will convene chemists, physicists, biologists, microbiologists, neuroscientists and bioinformaticians to explore our understanding of the gut microbiome and its relationship to the brain in both normal and disease states. 

Fellows are selected from multiple disciplines and institutions across the U.S. and Canada to maximize creative thinking and innovative ideas. At each conference, participants form multidisciplinary teams to design cutting-edge research projects, which they pitch to leading scientists who have facilitated discussions throughout the meeting.

A committee of these facilitators then recommends funding to seed the most promising team projects, based primarily on the potential for high-impact results. 

See the full list of Scialog fellows and facilitators

Lindsay Page in a pink sweater

Lindsay Page named national scholar of influence

Lindsay Page, associate professor in the School of Education and research scientist the Learning Research and Development Center, has been named a national scholar of influence in the 11th annual 2021 RHSU Edu-Scholar Public Influence Rankings, released by Education Week. The Edu-Scholar ranking names university-based scholars in the United States who had the biggest influence on educational practice and policy last year. Page was ranked 168th of a total 200 faculty members.

Given that more than 20,000 university-based faculty in the U.S. are researching education, simply making it onto the Edu-Scholar list is an accomplishment. Page joins widely known education research scholars, many with decades of experience in the field, such as Howard Gardner and Catherine Snow (Harvard), Linda Darling-Hammond and Carol Dweck (Stanford), and Diane Ravitch (NYU).

Page’s research lies at the intersection of college access and economics, with a particular focus on financial aid, college persistence and completion. She is a research fellow of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and, at Pitt, has secondary appointments in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences' economics department, and in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. Page and her colleague, Benjamin Castleman from the University of Virginia, coined the phrase “summer melt” to describe students who intend to go to college but do not enroll in the fall, in their 2014 book “Summer Melt: Supporting Low-income Students Through the Transition to College.” 

The Cathedral of Learning

LRDC researchers to evaluate new Pittsburgh Promise Coaching Initiative

In December 2020, The Pittsburgh Promise awarded three Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC) researchers a $325,000 grant to conduct an evaluation of a new program, the Promise Coaching Initiative.

Since its inception in 2008, Pittsburgh Promise has funded college scholarships for city high school students, investing about $140 million in more than 9,500 students. Not all eligible students take advantage of this opportunity, and the Promise wants to know why. Last year, the scholarship organization announced the Promise Coaching Initiative, a plan to place coaches in the three city high schools with the lowest Promise participation rates.

Jennifer Iriti, LRDC research scientist; Lindsay Page, associate professor of education and LRDC research scientist; and Danielle Lowry, an education graduate student, will provide feedback on the program’s design and implementation. The evaluations will also assess whether the program is achieving its goal of increasing the percentage of graduates eligible for and using the Promise scholarship.

The four-year pilot program will serve all students at the three schools but pay particular attention to those who risk falling below or are below eligibility. Students eligible for The Promise must have graduated from a Pittsburgh Public Schools high school with an unweighted 2.5 GPA and at least 90 percent attendance. The Promise coaches will help students develop their skills and interests, identify resources — financial or otherwise — understand their options and navigate the marketplace.

Katz MBA program ranked 30th in the world

The Katz Graduate School of Business’ Master of Business Administration program has been ranked 30th in the world — rising 23 spots to its highest ranking to date — in a new 2020-21 survey of full-time MBA programs by The Economist. The Katz MBA also ranked No. 13 among U.S. public universities and No. 20 in the nation.

The annual rankings are based on a combination of quantitative data provided by the schools, ratings by current MBA students and alumni on career opportunities, educational experience and personal growth, increase in salary and alumni networking opportunities.

“Top 30 in the world is an incredible achievement for our MBA program and for the Pitt Business community as a whole,” said Dean Arjang A. Assad. “The rigor, quality, individualized service and reputation of the Katz MBA is evident. And we have the rankings to support it.”

A stamp featuring an oil painting of August Wilson

New August Wilson Forever stamp unveiled with help From Pitt’s Library System

Fans and scholars of the late playwright August Wilson are celebrating the new August Wilson Forever stamp that was unveiled Jan. 28, 2021, by the U.S. Postal Service. It is the 44th stamp in the Black Heritage Series.

At the livestreamed ceremony, U.S. Postal Service Delivery Operations Vice President Joshua Colin called Wilson “a trailblazer who brought fresh perspectives and previously unheard voices to the stage.”

Others commenting on Wilson’s impact were his widow Constanza Romero; his daughter Sakina Ansari; actor and director Phylicia Rashad; and actor Stephen McKinely Henderson. The ceremony featured a number of images provided by the August Wilson Archive, acquired last fall by Pitt’s University Library System.

The new stamp features an oil painting of Wilson by artist Tim O’Brien, based on a 2005 photograph. The picket fence behind Wilson alludes to “Fences,” Wilson’s 1985 play that won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Tony Award for its Broadway production. It was also made into a 2016 film.

“Fences” is the sixth play in Wilson’s acclaimed “American Century Cycle” — 10 plays set mostly in Pittsburgh about the African-American experience.

Watch the USPS ceremony, visit the archives and read more about the acquisition.

Scott Bernotas

Bernotas honored for sustainability work

Associate Vice Chancellor for Facilities Management Scott Bernotas has been named an Environment + Energy Leader for 2020 (E+E 100), which highlights leaders and innovators taking action to improve their organizations’ bottom lines while advancing progress toward a more sustainable world for future generations.

Bernotas oversees Pitt’s Office of Facilities Management, which operates, maintains, constructs and oversees design of more than 130 buildings and all infrastructure on the Pitt’s 145-acre main campus.

Under his leadership in fiscal year 2020, the Oakland campus attained its lowest energy use per square foot since data tracking began in 2008. Overall, the campus has realized a 22 percent reduction in campus energy use since 2015, which moves the University closer to its Pitt Sustainability Plan goal of reducing energy use per square foot 50 percent by 2030.  This also keeps Pitt on track to meet its commitment to achieving carbon neutrality by 2037 

The Facilities Management team also has implemented solutions to cut water consumption toward Pitt’s goal to reduce water use per square foot 50 percent by 2030. Water use on campus has decreased 13.9 percent since 2015.

Bernotas and his team also have partnered on expanding the University’s renewable energy portfolio, increasing Pitt’s renewables percentage to over 23 percent in 2019 — more than five times its 2014 level.

The Cathedral of Learning

Pitt faculty working with U.S. Air Force on materials research

The University of Pittsburgh will receive $313,000 from the U.S. Air Force for a broadband dielectric spectrometer through the Defense University Research Instrumentation Program (DURIP).

The acquisition was made by a five-faculty team led by Jennifer Laaser, assistant professor of chemistry, and includes Susan Fullerton, associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering. The new instrument, a Novocontrol Concept 80, will be used to measure the conductivity and dielectric properties of soft materials, which will help faculty at Pitt and surrounding universities conduct research ranging from ion gel materials for carbon capture to new materials for computing. 

“This instrument fills a huge gap in our ability to characterize the dielectric properties of the materials we use in our device research,” said Fullerton. “We focus on new materials and approaches for low-power electronics, and the equipment provided by the DURIP will significantly accelerate our progress.”

Tasha Alston in a black top and gold earrings

Pitt-Bradford names Tasha Alston as inaugural diversity and inclusion officer

Tasha Alston has been named Pitt–Bradford's inaugural chief diversity and inclusion officer.

“Dr. Alston is an advocate, scholar, practitioner and interdisciplinary thinker who will build on the critical diversity, equity and inclusion work that we have already begun as a campus community,” said Catherine Koverola, president of Pitt-Bradford.

Alston began her position last week and is a senior campus leader, serving on the president’s cabinet. Additionally, she oversees the University’s Title IX office and will implement programs, partnerships and activities to advance equity and success for all members of the Pitt-Bradford community.

Alston is a social worker and educational psychologist with more than 20 years’ experience. She specializes in research and community work that focuses on advancing equity and social justice for all, with a particular emphasis on children and families.

Sue Mesick in a red top

Sue Mesick joins Office of the Chancellor

Sue Mesick (CGS ’13) has joined the Office of the Chancellor as executive assistant. She brings an impressive portfolio of supporting senior leaders in her 35-year tenure at Pitt, including administrative leadership positions in Business and Operations, the Office of Economic Partnerships, the Office of the Executive Vice Chancellor and General Counsel, and Budget and Administration.

Hands on a laptop

Pitt Cyber announces accelerator grant recipients

Pitt’s Institute for Cyber Law, Policy, and Security has announced awardees for the fall 2020 Pitt Cyber Accelerator Grants Program, which provides support for projects that establish or reinforce Pitt and Pitt Cyber as places of distinction and excellence in cyber studies and practice. 

The grants provide initial funding for novel and innovative multidisciplinary efforts that advance Pitt Cyber’s mission: to bring the breadth of one of the world’s leading public research universities to bear on the critical questions of networks, data and algorithms, with a focus on the ever-changing gaps among law, policy and technology. 

Learn about the 11 recipients and details of the four projects and the grants and see the complete list of recipients since 2018.

A statue

LifeX Labs Enters Alliance for Industry Growth

LifeX Labs, supported in part by the University of Pittsburgh, recently announced it is forming a strategic alliance with the Pittsburgh Life Science Greenhouse to accelerate growth in the industry. 

Together, the organizations will provide educational programming resources, company acceleration activities and networking opportunities for early-stage life science companies throughout southwestern Pennsylvania. The collaboration will provide innovators a one-stop-shop for everything they need to advance their endeavors, from laboratory development to commercialization. 

The new alliance comes just as the Henry L. Hillman and R.K. Mellon Foundations are also throwing their support behind LifeX Labs’ mission of helping translate life sciences innovations into commercial successes. Their funds will serve to streamline support for regional startups. This will be the R.K. Mellon Foundation’s first financial support of LifeX Labs.

Also this month, Gerald J. Vardzel Jr. was named president and CEO of LifeX Labs. He replaces Evan Facher, director of Pitt’s Innovation Institute and LifeX board member, who’d been serving as interim CEO. Vardzel, a Pitt grad, was most recently president and director at Predictive Oncology Inc., a company that uses artificial intelligence to develop personalized medical treatments.

Hrvoje Petek in a black suit and white shirt

Physics and Astronomy’s Hrvoje Petek publishes in Nature

Hrvoje Petek, professor in the Dietrich School's Department of Physics and Astronomy is co-author of the article, "Plasmonic Topological Quasiparticle on the Nanometre And Femtosecond Scales," featured in the Dec. 23, 2020, issue of Nature.

In his research, Petek examined ideas surrounding the origins of light, taking snapshots of light, stopping light and using it to change properties of matter. He worked with collaborators Chen-Bin (Robin) Huang of the National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan and Atsushi Kubo of the Tsukuba University of Japan, as well as Dietrich School graduate student Yanan Dai on the experiments.

The team performed an ultrafast microscopy experiment where they trapped green light pulses as composite light-electron density fluctuation waves and imaged their propagation on a silver surface at the speed of light. These light waves came together from two sides to form a light vortex where light waves appeared to circulate about a stationary common core as a whirlwind of waves. The light vortex fields can potentially cause transitions in the quantum mechanical phase order in solid state materials, such that the transformed material structure and its mirror image cannot be superimposed, thus generating two materials that are topologically distinct.

Petek said such topological phase transitions are at the vanguard of physics research because they are thought to be responsible for some aspects of the structure of the universe. “Even the forces of nature, including light, are thought to have emerged as symmetry breaking transitions of a primordial field. Thus, the ability to record the optical fields and plasmonic vortices in the experiment opens the way to perform ultrafast microscopy studies of related light-initiated phase transitions in condensed matter materials at the laboratory scale,” he said.

Petek is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, recipient of the 2019 Ahmed Zewail Award in Ultrafast Science and Technology, and winner of the University of Pittsburgh 2005 Chancellor's Distinguished Research Award. 

Oleg Prokopyev in a gray suit and white collared shirt

Swanson School’s Prokopyev awarded NSF grant for wildfire management

Industrial engineer and professor Oleg Prokopyev at the Swanson School of Engineering will collaborate with researchers at Texas A&M University on a project that will help optimize wildfire management.

Using advanced decision-making methods such as mixed-integer optimization and simulation the project will provide a better understanding of what types of fuel treatment options would be most effective and when to implement them.

“One strategy for mitigating forest fires is fuel treatment, which involves strategically removing some of the vegetation—the ‘fuel’ for the fire—with controlled burns, grazing or mechanical thinning,” Prokopyev said. “Our models will help predict when, where and how to best implement these methods.”

The project is expected to last three years and is funded by a $550,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Of the total amount, $270,000 is designated for Pitt.

Catherine Grant in a pink top

Nursing’s Catherine Grant wins practitioners award

Catherine Grant (Nursing, ’88G), assistant professor at the Pitt School of Nursing, has been named the first recipient of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Nurse Practitioners’ Dr. Mona Counts Award.

Grant is the owner of Associates in Family Health Care, based in Slickville. The clinic was the first in the state to be owned and operated by a nurse practitioner. Her practice provides health care services from birth to geriatrics, including acute and chronic care management; screenings and preventative services such as immunizations, Pap smears and gynecologic health. The practice also provides home visits for patients who are unable to make it into the clinic.

Grant is a previous recipient of Pittsburgh Magazine’s Excellence in Nursing recognition for her work in the community.

Melissa Bilec and April Dukes side by side with gray backgrounds

Faculty lead $300K NSF project for inclusive engineering education

The National Science Foundation has awarded $300,000 for a Pitt-led collaborative research project that will provide engineering educators tangible guidance for operating an inclusive classroom.

Melissa Bilec, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering in the Swanson School of Engineering, and co-principal investigator April Dukes, faculty and Future Faculty Program director at the Swanson School’s Engineering Education Research Center, are partnering with faculty at Arizona State University and the Colorado School of Mines on the three-year project, “Collaborative Research: Increasing Implementation of Proven Inclusivity Practices in Undergraduate Engineering Education.”

Prior research shows that more inclusive classrooms improve student learning and academic performance, especially for underrepresented students. Read more about the project.

Peggy Liu in a dark jacket against a dark blue background

Pitt Business’ Peggy Liu named 2021 Marketing Science Institute Young Scholar

Pitt business faculty member Peggy Liu has been selected as a 2021 Marketing Science Institute Young Scholar.

The biennial program recognizes the best young marketing academics. The 2021 class is made up of 37 young scholars from business schools around the world, who are three to six years post-Ph.D. and conducting research on critical marketing topics.

Liu, assistant professor of business administration and Ben L. Fryrear Faculty Fellow in the Katz Graduate School of Business and College of Business Administration, conducts research on consumer behavior, focusing on judgment and decision making in the health and social domains. She also teaches undergraduate consumer behavior.

Among many other honors and awards, she also was recently named one of Poets & Quants 2020 Top 50 Undergraduate Business School Professors,

A man in glasses and a dark brown suit jacket

Law Professor Jules Lobel honored with teaching award

Pitt Professor of Law Jules Lobel has been honored with the Society of American Law Teachers Great Teacher Award. The award will be presented at a virtual celebration on Jan. 8, 2021.

This national award recognizes individuals that have made important contributions to teaching, legal education and mentoring. Past Great Teacher honorees include Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and former Pitt Professor Derrick Bell (Law ’57).

Calling Lobel “a champion of justice, diversity and teaching excellence,” the awards committee praised Lobel’s work in integrating his impactful and important social justice work into the courses he teaches at Pitt. Lobel has long been a leading voice in the campaign to end solitary confinement and improve the inhumane conditions of mass incarceration.

In 2002, he co-counseled a major class action (Wilkinson v. Austin) that challenged prolonged solitary confinement at the Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown, Ohio. Lobel ultimately argued the case at the U.S. Supreme Court and, despite the steep odds at the outset, was able to successfully secure relief on behalf of his clients. As is his practice with all his work, Lobel’s students conducted research, wrote memoranda, held strategy sessions, attended the argument, and met with human rights organizations and co-counsel while in Washington, D.C.

The society also mentioned Lobel’s work as president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, where he has litigated several cases challenging human rights violations and abuse of war powers. His most recent cases involve a class action brought on behalf of prisoners with mental disabilities and challenging conditions at jails in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The full extent of Professor Lobel’s impact is not only what he has done, as incredible as his work is, but the work that his students and former students do and have been doing for decades,” said Pitt Law Dean Amy Wildermuth. “They remain inspired by him and are determined to pursue justice just as he taught them to do. We are all better — and our world is better — because of Professor Lobel.”

Two photos stitched together; on the left, a woman in a dark red top and on the right a woman in a red shirt against a blue background

Pitt Law professors named to civil rights advisory committee

Two professors from Pitt’s School of Law have been named to the Pennsylvania Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights — an independent agency developed by Congress in 1957 to focus on matters of race, color, religion, sex, age, disability or national origin. There are advisory boards in all 50 states.

Associate Professor Jessie Allen (left) and Professor Mary Crossley have been appointed to the panel for four-year terms. They will consult with members of the commission and offer advice and recommendations on the areas they have studied.

Allen, a civil rights advocate, teaches courses on jurisprudence, legal ethics and property. She writes in the area of legal theory including a long-running series of essays on the work of William Blackstone, some of which appear on her blog Blackstone Weekly. Prior to her position at Pitt, Allen was a staff attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, where her practice focused on challenging state laws that bar voting because of criminal conviction.

Crossley, a widely respected scholar in disability and health law, has studied pressing legal issues presented by advances in medical science. Those topics include discrimination in the treatment of infants with HIV infection and newborns with disabilities as well as the ramifications of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Crossley is director of Pitt Law’s Health Law Program and teaches courses in health law, bioethics and law, and family law, among others. She served as the dean of Pitt Law from 2005 to 2012.

A man in a light blue striped dress shirt and a gray suit jacket

Matthew Sterne joins Oakland Business Improvement District board

Matthew Sterne, vice chancellor for business services at Pitt, has joined the board of directors of the Oakland Business Improvement District (OBID).

Formed in 1999, OBID represents a diverse group in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood, including property and business owners, universities, hospitals, city government, community and cultural nonprofits. Its mission is to create a vibrant and dynamic business district. 

Board members are elected to a three-year term.

Sterne oversees the office of business and auxiliary services at Pitt, including housing, dining, transportation and mobility, the University Club, University retail stores, conference services, Panther Central, mailing and print production. 

“He is joining us at a great moment,” said Georgia Petropoulos, OBID executive director, noting that the board has just completed a new Organizational Strategic Plan for shaping Oakland’s future. “His expertise will help us navigate current challenges as we work to realize this growth.” 

Monica Rattigan, executive director of University stores and strategic initiatives at Pitt, and Paul Supowitz, the University’s vice chancellor for Community and Governmental Relations, also serve on the OBID board. 

A man in glasses and a police uniform

Shawn Ellies appointed director of Security and Emergency Management

Commander Shawn Ellies has been appointed director of Security and Emergency Management, overseeing the Integrated Security Department, which includes the University’s physical security, access controls and emergency management areas within the Office of Public Safety and Emergency Management.

Ellies has served the Pitt community for the past 23 years in public safety roles including patrol officer, shift sergeant, shift lieutenant, administrative lieutenant, commander of the special emergency response team and commander of operations. 

He holds a doctorate in administration and policy studies from Pitt’s School of Education, a master’s degree in public policy and management from the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and a master’s degree in leadership and management from Duquesne University. 

He is the chair of the American Society of Industrial Security’s Pittsburgh chapter, in addition to chairing Pitt’s Veterans Affinity Group

Additionally, Ellies is an ASIS Certified Protection Professional, a credential that is recognized as the gold standard for security management professionals worldwide.