A Big Night for Catalyst and Discovery Awards Winners

University celebrates the work that early career individuals and cross-divisional teams ‘are about to do’

Photo Credit: Will Kirk/Johns Hopkins University

Article courtesy of Rafael Alvarez/HUB

Surrounded by soaring stacks of bound wisdom at the George Peabody Library, Johns Hopkins University Vice Provost Denis Wirtz exhorted the winners at the Catalyst and Discovery Awards ceremony last week to “meet someone new—[perhaps] it will be an occasion where sparks will fly.”

It is by way of such sparks—from those in the “action potential” of our smallest cells to the great voilà and Eureka moments of hard-earned revelation—that civilization advances.

Wirtz, vice provost for research, has guided the awards since their inception in 2015, and this year, along with JHU Provost Sunil Kumar, led applause for 33 individual Catalyst winners ($75,000 each) and 32 teams of researchers receiving $100,000 Discovery grants.

The competitive funding is based on universitywide applications. President Ronald J. Daniels, who traditionally presides over the ceremony, was out of the country on university business this year.

This celebration “is for what you are about to do, not what you’ve already done,” said Kumar, who, as his custom, lent some humor to the evening while presiding over a bountiful repast—complete with live jazz performed by Peabody musicians—worthy of a wedding.

“Johns Hopkins,” Kumar said, “is the first university in its peer group to launch and fund these types of awards.”

Imagine, he said, “that this is a gift from your grandmother.” The challenge and pressure of such a gift are, he pointed out, “to make Nana proud.”

Here’s hoping that the physicist Emad M. Boctor, a Discovery winner, and the poet Dora Malech, awarded a Catalyst grant, met one another in the crowd last Thursday.

They are precisely the kind of cross-discipline pioneers whom Wirtz spoke about when he encouraged scholars from different backgrounds to mingle. In this case—another example of the interconnectedness of the universe at the heart of so many Catalyst and Discovery projects—the scientist and the writer may want to sound each other out.

Sound—specifically the continued development of ultrasound—is what Boctor and his teammates Arthur Burnett, Jin Kang, and Maged Harraz are studying in a project called “Nerve-sparing Prostatectomy Using Neuromodulation-based Nerve Localization.”

Or, as Boctor put it, “I’m trying to measure electrical activity with ultrasound—we’re working to add bio-electricity to what it can already do.”

His team may be less than two years away—”that’s the best-case scenario,” Boctor said—from finessing ultrasound devices beyond imaging of anatomy to determine the exact location of nerves as a navigational aid to surgery.

Though nerves can regenerate and sometimes be repaired, it’s generally best to stay clear of them.

Malech, an assistant professor of poetry in the Writing Seminars, said her Catalyst Award will help ripen two books of verse now on the workbench. One of them, nearing completion and under contract with a London publisher, is called Soundings.

“This is an investment in a larger body of work,” she said, which, for the true writer, proceeds in good times and bad. This is an especially good time for Malech as she is about to take up an artist residency at the American Academy in Rome.

While it may seem that the “soundings” of Boctor’s research and that of Malech’s incantations are apples and oranges, legion are the medical patients soothed by the written word, people who have viscerally experienced writer Kurt Vonnegut’s adage that the arts “are a very human way of making life more bearable.”

“Sound—the music and patterns of language—is how I make sense of the world, or try to make something resonant in spite of what doesn’t make sense,” said Malech, who believes it’s more important than ever to find sense in our current cultural moment.

Walt Whitman, she said, would be greatly dismayed today. Yet the great poet of America, who tended to terrible carnage as a nurse during the Civil War and was born 200 years ago this past May, would surely have marveled at the work of Discovery recipient Stephen Fried.

“We’re trying to create pacemakers that recharge themselves,” said Fried, a chemist who, with James E. West, an acoustician and engineer, won for a project called Creating Biomolecule-Polymer Hybrid Materials for Biocompatible Piezoelectric Devices.

“Now, you have to remove a pacemaker [via] surgery to replace the battery,” Fried said. “We’re working on turning the motion of the person with the pacemaker into electrical energy that recharges” the device.

Just as each year for the past five years, the Catalyst and Discovery Awards have recharged the imaginations, objectives, and careers of hundreds of Hopkins professors, who “represent some of our most creative scholars,” Kumar said. These winners, he said, “reflect the great diversity of expertise and talent embedded throughout our university.”

Applications for the 2020 awards will be accepted from January through March of next year.