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University of Maryland New Directions Seed Grants Support New Research

Division of Research Advances Seven New Projects via Maryland Catalyst Fund

The University of Maryland has announced seven New Directions awards to support research across the College Park campus. The projects span a broad range of disciplines and topics, ranging from the documentation of community heritage to the discovery of atomic catalysts.

“We are excited to support these dynamic, diverse, and creative research initiatives through the New Directions program,” said Vice President for Research Dr. Gregory F. Ball. “The projects have the potential to make a significant impact on communities locally, regionally, and nationally.”

Made possible by funding through the Maryland Catalyst Fund program within the Division of Research, as well as matching funds from the colleges and departments of the research awardees, the projects will advance promising research from seven academic departments across campus.

The New Directions Fund advances important new lines of research and creative work with high potential for impact. A total of 18 eligible proposals were submitted by campus researchers for consideration. The New Directions review process is entirely anonymous. Each proposal was reviewed by three faculty peers, with a total of 12 reviewers from across eight colleges providing 54 reviews. Criteria for selection included technical approach, impact and societal relevance, alignment with program goals, likely outcomes, and overall rating

For the most recent round of New Directions seed grant funding, a special Racial and Social Justice track was included to support research that addresses systemic, institutional, and structural racism and injustice. Four projects were selected under the Racial and Social Justice track.

The following projects were selected for New Directions awards:

Digital North Brentwood Heritage Project

Mark Leone, Department of Anthropology, College of Behavioral and Social Sciences

North Brentwood, Prince George’s County, Maryland was originally known as Randallstown, named after the US Colored Troop Veteran, that purchased the first lots in the 1890s. In 1924, it became the first community incorporated by African Americans in the County, and second in the State. It is located along Route 1, south of the College Park campus and north of the District of Columbia line. The community is currently confronting old challenges related to stormwater management and new impacts of gentrification, including the potential destruction of historic sites.

The participatory heritage framework is designed to empower Town residents and community descendants through digital historic preservation. The project helps to maintain and expand the town’s heritage using state-of-the-art technologies for documentation and dissemination. The cultural and historic values shared by the community will reach a global audience through digital first-person 3-D and virtual reality environments. The stories of the community will be shared in their own words through oral histories and historic images embedded in these digital spaces. The data produced also contributes to the town’s management of gentrification and stormwater related disasters.

Identifying Parental Sexual Orientation Socialization Strategies: Conceptual and Measurement Development

Jessica Fish, Department of Family Science, School of Public Health

Sexual minority (e.g., lesbian, gay, bisexual) youth (SMY) experience poorer mental health and greater substance use than their heterosexual peers; these inequities stem from stigma within youth’s social contexts. Research identifying mechanisms that promote SMY health and resilience remain scarce, as are measures that assess these mechanisms. These gaps impede efforts to develop prevention and health promotion programs for SMY. Adjacent research on parental racial/ethnic socialization – parental practices that communicate positive messages about race and culture to children – provides compelling evidence for the protective influence of identity-based socialization for youth of color. Thus, it stands to reason that parents of SMY who engage in strategies that socialize their children around their sexual minority identity (e.g., celebrate youth’s sexual identity, communicate strategies to address stigma) could provide unique protections for SMY mental health and prevent substance use during adolescence. The study will support a shift in the PI’s research agenda and contribute substantially to advancing research in SMY health through the development of a (1) testable conceptual model of parental sexual orientation socialization and (2) self-report measure of parental sexual orientation socialization practices that can be utilized in future research and intervention. The findings will be used to help the PI competitively vie for approved NIH funding opportunities that are forthcoming.

Anti-Black Racism Initiative

Rashawn Ray, Department of Sociology, College of Behavioral and Social Sciences

The Anti-Black Racism initiative (ABRI) is designed to promote long-term change on campus and in our community and state through the advancement of research to inform racially-equitable policies. The mission is to create racially-equitable opportunities for African Americans by supporting community-engagement and policy-oriented endeavors. Building on existing coalitions, ABRI leveled up partnerships to increase the number of Black faculty and advanced research portals for scholars focused on dismantling racism. One primary goal of the ABRI is to address racism in our local community and on our campus, produce scholarship that advances a national conversation and policy agenda on social justice, and empower students to envision and create a racially equitable future.

Data-Driven Deep-Learning-Accelerated Discovery of Atomic Catalysts

Teng Li, Department of Mechanical Engineering, A. James Clark School of Engineering

Catalysts are required for >90% of the chemical processes and there is an ever-surging need for developing high-performance catalysts to secure a sustainable future. Atomic catalysts are surging as a new research frontier in catalysis science, given their maximum atom-utilization efficiency and high activity/selectivity to enable highly efficient chemical reactions toward green energy, net-zero CO2 emission, and access to clean water. Enthusiasm aside, the success of atomic catalysts hinges upon a rational design strategy that remains a grand challenge, largely resulting from the huge design parameter space. Conventional experimental design via trial and error and computational design based on first-principle calculation are both time and cost prohibitive and suffer from low efficiency. Aiming to address this grand challenge, we plan to develop a novel data-driven deep-learning-accelerated design methodology for the discovery of high-performance atomic catalysts, which holds promise to a paradigm shift in the rational design of atomic catalysts. This project will allow us to explore an exciting new direction with fertile opportunities in the field of research of data-driven materials discovery.

“The System Isn’t Built for Us.” Exploring Black and Latinx Parent Experiences of Educational Exclusion in a Local District to Reduce Inequality

Sophia Rodriguez, Teaching, Learning, Policy, and Leadership, College of Education

This qualitative case study centers on Black and Latino/x parents' experiences of exclusion in a local community and calls for the school district to engage in equitable collaboration as a viable strategy for improving family engagement practices. The project assumes Black and Latino/x families are and ought to be considered educational policy thinkers and makers given the assets and knowledge they bring to educational settings. Using a critical qualitative case study approach, the project will leverage interview and focus group data of 75 parents in a local school district to contribute to research and advocacy efforts to increase racial and social justice for underrepresented parents.

Measuring Quantum Energies of Molecules in Extreme Rotational States

Amy Mullin, Department of Chemistry, College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences

The Mullin group will investigate how molecular geometry is distorted by extreme amounts of quantized rotational energy. An optical centrifuge is a strong-field method that is capable of preparing molecules in high energy rotational states that have not been observed, or characterized, previously. This project is designed to measure the extent to which extreme rotational energy affects the vibrational states in centrifuged molecules. We will accomplish this by directly measuring quantum energies in different vibrational states using a spectroscopic method known as combination differences. Inverted rotational distributions of gas-phase molecules will be prepared in our optical centrifuge and the rotational quantum states will be detected using high-resolution transient IR absorption probing.  Pairs of IR transitions that share either a lower or upper state are combined to yield the rotational energy ladder for different vibrational states. The ability to measure rotational energies separately from vibrational energy marks an important new direction in research. The outcome of these experiments will inform current models of molecular quantum states, contribute to our understanding of heat transport at the molecular level, and lay the groundwork for understanding the dynamics of gas-phase molecules in extreme energy environments.

Evaluating Implementation Determinants and Processes of the Montgomery County, Maryland's Racial Equity and Social Justice Act

Kellee White, Health Policy and Management, School of Public Health

Racism is a key determinant of population health that contributes to creating, maintaining, and perpetuating racial/ethnic inequities. Increasingly, local governments are developing and implementing policies that address racism, as a strategy to create healthier and more equitable communities. Recently, the Racial Equity and Social Justice Act, passed in Montgomery County, Maryland mandates legislative committees on racial equity and requires racial equity impact assessments and statements for management, legislative and budgetary priorities. Evaluating policy implementation processes can provide valuable information about the barriers to and facilitators of implementation and identify differences between planned and actual implementation to inform ongoing implementation decisions and improve outcomes. Yet, there is a dearth of evidence assessing implementation determinants and processes, particularly for racial equity policies that address racial equity. Towards this end, this project will: 1) evaluate implementation determinants and processes of the Racial Equity and Social Justice Act; and 2) develop a racial equity and social justice policy evaluation implementation framework. The results of this study have the potential to further our understanding of racial equity policy implementation processes, determinants, and outcomes that can aid stakeholders, decision-makers, and researchers to support evidence-informed policies to improve population health and reduce inequities.

For more information about the Maryland Catalyst Fund and New Directions seed grants, visit:

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