Institute at Brown for Environment and Society

From Vision to Reality: 5 Stories of Innovation Fueled by IBES Catalyst Research Awards

Learn about the transformative power of these start-up style funding opportunities. Applications for the 2024 cycle are due May 1.

Each year, IBES core faculty, fellows, and affiliates jumpstart their research with the help of IBES Catalyst Research Awards (formerly, IBES Seed Grant Awards). This funding supports intellectually rigorous, solutions-driven projects that cross disciplinary boundaries, engage with community partners, and show potential for significant societal impact.  

Projects can range from individual and team-based research to interdisciplinary working groups, symposia or conferences. The deadline to apply for a 2024 Catalyst Research Award is May 1. 

Catalyst Awards have propelled researchers' work across diverse fields, from quantum physics to gene editing, environmental history and more.

Brad Marston, Professor of Physics

With IBES funding, Marston and a team of Brown researchers made significant breakthroughs in quantum physics. 

“We demonstrated that theoretical predictions of non-trivial topology of inertio-gravity waves in the stratosphere can be seen in actual observations of those waves,” he said. “Such research may deepen our understanding of other wavelike phenomena in the climate system such as the Madden-Julian oscillation that affects climate globally.”

From this research, Marston said his team is in a better position to apply for other national grants. 

“ The funds have put us in a strong position to apply to NASA or NSF or private foundations for future research support in this direction. ”

Brad Marston IBES Fellow and Catalyst Award Recipient

Nancy Jacobs, Professor of History

IBES funding allowed Jacobs to travel to South Africa and Cameroon to conduct research for her book project, which traces the history of the gray parrot since the 15th century. By incorporating economic, personal and environmental history, Jacobs explores the gray parrot’s ever-changing relationship with humans and the world around them. Since embarking on that journey, she has nearly completed a book about her findings and received multiple other research awards and fellowship offers.

“ It's difficult to start a new project. Until you have results, you're less likely to be funded, and without funding, how can you get your first results? A Catalyst Award provides the boost for new work. ”

Nancy Jacobs IBES Fellow and Catalyst Award Recipient

Dan Ibarra, Professor in IBES and Earth, Environmental & Planetary Sciences

Ibarra’s Catalyst Award supported his team’s research on weathering fluxes throughout the world, including work in the Philippines that refined previous measurements. “Previous work had not accounted for the big seasonal cycle that we see in the tropics associated with the Asian monsoon,” Ibarra said.

Since receiving the award, his group has published multiple papers and received additional grant funding from the Department of Energy.

“ Science is risky. It's nice to have money that's flexible and also allows you to do something a little bit risky. ”

Daniel Ibarra IBES Faculty Member and Catalyst Award Recipient

Bathsheba Demuth, Associate Professor of History and Environment & Society

Demuth’s award funded multiple site visits to Arctic communities in Russia and Alaska, which were critical to her first book, Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait.

“I was able to work in several archives and to interview a wide range of people, from Indigenous whalers during a gray whale hunt off the Russian coast of Chukotka to visiting reindeer farmers in Alaska,” she recalled, noting that her first book has made her competitive for other grants for her second book project.

Demuth appreciated how the awards support opportunities for scholars and with various environmental interests. 

“ Catalyst Awards can help at a range of stages in the life of a research venture, from finishing a multi-year project to starting something new. That kind of flexibility is rare and welcome. ”

Bathsheba Demuth IBES Faculty Member and Catalyst Award Recipient

Tyler Kartzinel, Assistant Professor of Environment & Society and Biology

Funded by a Catalyst Award, Kartzinel and postdoctoral researcher Bethan Littleford-Colquhoun leveraged CRISPR — a gene editing technology — to analyze wildlife diets faster than conventional methods. “We wanted to try a brand new technology to make this work involving forensic study of wildlife behaviors — something we can do in real-time,” Kartzinel said. 

He noted that Catalyst Awards differ from traditional funding sources, which can often limit creativity.

“ Having access to even small amounts of seed funding is disproportionately valuable in the long run because it allows us to take risks. ”

Tyler Kartzinel IBES Faculty Member and Catalyst Award Recipient