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A stamp featuring an oil painting of August Wilson

U.S. Postal Service Unveils New August Wilson Forever Stamp 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 (USPS) 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 emotionally-powerful plays that demonstrate Wilson’s ear for African-American storytelling traditions.

Nine of the plays are set in Wilson’s hometown of Pittsburgh.

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

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.”

Gerald J. Vardzel Jr. in a black suit and a striped dress shirt

Gerald J. Vardzel Jr. Named CEO of LifeX Labs

LifeX Labs, a life sciences startup incubator focused on providing early-stage companies with the support, resources and ecosystem to be successful, recently appointed Gerald J. Vardzel Jr. President and Chief Executive Officer in early January. The labs are supported in part by the University of Pittsburgh.

Vardzel has extensive corporate expertise, with over 30 years of general management and commercial leadership from a broad spectrum of healthcare companies, including Fortune 500 market leaders. Over the past 20 years, he has assisted startups as well as midsize and large life science companies in developing and implementing new commercialization strategies and models for technology launches. 

“We are delighted to have Gerald as our new CEO of LifeX Labs. He brings both the experience and vision to attract domain expertise and outside capital to drive our strategy in the life sciences sector,” said Rob A. Rutenbar, Senior Vice Chancellor for Research at the University of Pittsburgh and chairman of the board of LifeX Labs. “We also thank Evan Facher, whose work as interim CEO built the strong foundation allowing us to attract top-notch leadership in our national search for this role.”

Ashley Priore in a black top

Ashley Priore Wins Women in Toys Foundation Scholarship Program Grant

Ashley Priore, a junior English and political science major in Pitt’s Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, was recently announced as a recipient of the 2021 Women in Toys (WIT) Foundation Scholarship Program grant.

The grant is given to deserving young women seeking undergraduate degrees in business, design, engineering, entrepreneurial studies and other industry-related programs.

Priore is president and CEO of Queen’s Gambit, a nonprofit organization that uses chess to impact communities, empower young people and solve society's biggest obstacles through strategy. Priore started the organization prior to her enrollment at Pitt to teach chess to people of all ages and seek inclusion in a male-dominated sport. The U.S. Chess Federation ranks her in the top 1,500 chess players in the country.

The Cathedral of Learning behind flowers

Winners of Political Engagement Award Announced

On Wednesday, Jan. 27, the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Program and the Graduate School of Public Health will host a virtual ceremony to recognize the 2020-21 recipients of the Iris Marion Young Award for Political Engagement.

This year’s honorees include undergraduate students Beatrice Fadrigon, a psychology major, and Kathryn Fleisher, who is majoring in politics-philosophy and gender, sexuality, and women’s studies. Doctoral graduate student Kess Ballantine from the School of Social Work was also recognized.

Faculty member Gina Garcia, associate professor of higher education in the Department of Education Foundations, Organizations and Policy, and staff member Prince Matthews, Sr., academic and student services coordinator in the Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business, were also honored.

Sponsored by both programs, the awards recognize those who work to promote justice—whether at the local, national or global levels, or in the University—under the belief that social activism takes many forms. The award was created in 2008 in memory of philosopher, social theorist and Graduate School of Public and International Affairs professor Iris Marion Young, who passed away in 2006. Read more about the current and past recipients of the award

All members of the Pitt community are welcome to attend the ceremony: Register for the Zoom event.

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 the University of Pittsburgh at 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.

Elizabeth Skidmore in a red top

SHRS’ Beth Skidmore Helps Address Rehabilitation Needs for Biden Transition Team

Elizabeth Skidmore, associate dean for research in Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, was recently selected to represent the American Occupational Therapy Association and the greater rehab research community in an invited meeting with President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team. “It was pretty exciting to talk with a member of the transition team. They want to understand the problems that people are facing and get to effective solutions,” she said.

As a partner with the Disability and Rehabilitation Research Consortium, Skidmore has been addressing the needs of people with disabilities and the disparities they face, including how the COVID-19 pandemic has increased hardships for the disability community. The consortium consists of scientists, disability advocates and legal experts.

Along with being chair and a professor for Pitt’s Department of Occupational Therapy, Skidmore’s research focuses on innovative rehabilitation treatments that promote greater independence and community re-engagement for those with cognitive impairments.

Skidmore is a 2013 recipient of the Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers.

A blue microphone

Pitt Students Win Gold Medal in Genetically Engineered Machine Competition

As part of a virtual research competition, a team of Pitt undergraduates explored whether a comparable equivalent to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technologies could allow scientists to wirelessly manipulate cell behavior and control gene expression. 

The group pitched this idea for the 2020 International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, an annual synthetic biology research event in which teams from around the world design and carry out projects to solve an open research or societal problem. More than 250 teams participated in the organization’s first Virtual Giant Jamboree, and the Pitt undergraduate group received a gold medal for their project titled “Bluetooth Bacteria.”

This year’s group was also one of three teams that were nominated for “Best Foundational Advance Project.” This is the first time a Pitt iGEM team has been nominated for an award at the iGEM competition.

The team included Sabrina Catalano, a senior molecular biology student in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences; Dara Czernikowski, a senior biological sciences student; Lia Franco, a junior chemical engineering student; Victor So, a senior microbiology and English literature student; and Chenming (Angel) Zheng, a junior molecular biology student.

Hands on a laptop

Pitt Cyber Announces Accelerator Grant Recipients

Pitt’s Institute for Cyber Law, Policy, and Security is pleased to announce its awardees for the fall 2020 Pitt Cyber Accelerator Grants Program, which provides support for projects that aim to 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.

Clyde Wilson Pickett in a black suit and red bow tie

Clyde Wilson Pickett Named Chair of National Anti-Racism Task Force

The National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (NADOHE) has tapped Clyde Wilson Pickett, Pitt vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion, to lead its taskforce for “creating a framework for advancing anti-racism strategy on campus.”

Pickett will lead a group of 11 diversity officers from institutions like Northern Illinois University, Kent State University and Lehigh University. The taskforce has an accelerated timeframe for developing a proposed campus framework.

“It is my honor and privilege to be selected to help assist with this effort. The work of diversity officers is pivotal in helping higher education and campuses all around the country advance their anti-racism efforts,” said Pickett. “As a team it is our goal to learn and share practical strategies to help confront racism on campuses and communities around the country.”

As the pre-eminent voice for chief diversity officers in higher education and with more than 1,100 members representing 750 colleges and universities, NADOHE's mission is to lead higher education towards inclusive excellence through institutional transformation. For more information about NADOHE, visit the organization’s website.

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.

Hrvoje Petek in a black suit and white shirt

Physics and Astronomy’s Hrvoje Petek Publishes in Nature

Hrvoje Petek, R. K. Mellon Professor in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences’ 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. 

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 University of Pittsburgh’s 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.

Oleg Prokopyev in a gray suit and white collared shirt

Swanson School’s Oleg Prokopyev Awarded NSF Grant for Wildfire Management Work

Industrial engineer and professor Oleg Prokopyev at the University of Pittsburgh’s 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,” said Prokopyev. “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 (NURS ’88G), assistant professor of nursing at the University of Pittsburgh, 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, Pennsylvania, this 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.

A panther statue

Sheyann McPherson (A&S ’20) Receives Barry Scholarship to Oxford

Sheyann McPherson, who studied history and English literature in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences and graduated from Pitt in December, has been awarded a Barry Scholarship to pursue the MPhil in Modern European History at Oxford University.

A member of the Bruderhof, a pacifist Christian minority group, McPherson studies modern European history to understand the dynamics of hate and reconciliation, exile and hospitality, and individualism and community.

Motivated by the group’s experience of marginalization and displacement—first by the Nazis, then by England, then by Paraguay to the US—McPherson’s academic pursuits extend past traditional research into poetry, multimedia, theater and journalism.

The Barry Scholarship is awarded in recognition of students’ dedication to the academic vocation and pursuit of truth, and provides full funding for a minimum of two years at Oxford. Funded by the John and Daria Barry Foundation, the scholarship is an initiative of the Canterbury Institute, an Oxford-based charity that seeks to rediscover the academic vocation.

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 (MSI) Young Scholar.

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

Liu, assistant professor of business administration and Ben L. Fryrear Faculty Fellow in the Joseph M. 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 was also recently named one of Poets & Quants 2020 Top 50 Undergraduate Business School Professors,

The 2021 MSI Young Scholars will convene this year for three days of research-sharing and to explore future collaborations.

Mohammad Masnadi in a dark blue suit and a white shirt

New Research Models the Environmental Impact of Refining Different Crude Oils

Recently published research led in part by the University of Pittsburgh uses engineering-based refinery modeling on crude oils to assess and track the lifecycle climate impacts of the oil and gas industry.

The authors, including Mohammad Masnadi, assistant professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering, provide guidance on refining choices that will lessen the environmental impact of the industry and recommend future investments in emissions mitigation technologies. The research was published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

The researchers modeled 93% of the world’s oil as it flows to 153 refineries across the world, finding that global refining emissions could be reduced by 11-58% by targeting the primary emission sources. The research will, for the first time, estimate greenhouse gas emissions of oil refinery operations using a granular, engineering-based, bottom-up approach.

Brett Murphy in a yellow jacket and white striped dress shirt and tie

Alumnus Brett Murphy Named in Forbes' 30 Under 30 Class of 2021

Brett Murphy (A&S '13) was named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 Class of 2021 in the media category. 

Murphy is an investigative reporter for USA Today and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2018 for his work "Rigged," which examined injustices in the trucking industry. His investigation of a 2008 military attack on its own forces in Afghanistan earned him a Livingston Award in 2020.