2021 Research Awards

The Office of Research and Economic and Community Development honored (clockwise from top left) Jianli Pan, Nancy Singer, Jerome Morris, Katherine O’Daniels, Michael Gearhart and Shea Kerkhoff with awards for their research and innovation. Pan was named the Innovator of the Year. Morris was chosen Senior Investigator of the Year. Gearhart was selected Junior Investigator of the Year. Singer, O’Daniels and Kerkhoff were named Co-Investigators of the Year. (Photos by August Jennewein)

Each year, the University of Missouri-St. Louis honors outstanding faculty in the areas of research, invention and commercialization.

The university is foregoing its usual Research and Innovation Reception at the Millennium Student Center because of COVID-19 precautions, but Vice Chancellor for Research and Economic and Community Development Chris Spilling did not want the success of faculty members to go unnoticed.

The Office of Research and Economic & Community Development selected Jerome Morris, the E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor of Urban Education in the Department of Educator Preparation & Leadership, as the Senior Investigator of the Year. Michael Gearhart, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work, was chosen as the Junior Investigator of the Year.

Associate Dean and Associate Professor Nancy Singer, Assistant Teaching Professor Katherine O’Daniels and Assistant Professor Shea Kerkhoff from the College of Education were recognized as the Co-Investigators of the Year.

Jianli Pan, an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science, was named the Innovator of the Year.

“We need to celebrate the research and innovation of all our outstanding faculty,” Spilling said. “These six individuals, in particular, are engaged in work that will impact the lives of people in our community and will help facilitate changes and advancement in our region and beyond. They set an example we hope others will emulate as we continue to grow our research productivity.”

The investigators of the year were chosen based on criteria including but not limited to the amount of grant funding during the previous calendar year, largest increase in funding during the previous calendar year, the potential significance of the nominee’s research in their discipline and the novelty of their research.

The Innovator of the Year is selected with consideration of a discovery or invention’s contributions or potential contributions to public good, the economy, research funding to UMSL, regional entrepreneurship and the advancement of science and useful arts.

Each awardee receives a $500 prize. They will be honored in person along with next year’s winners 2022 annual reception.

Read more about the projects that were honored through this year’s awards:

Senior Faculty Investigator of the Year: Jerome Morris

Last fall, the Spencer Foundation awarded Morris a prestigious Lyle M. Spencer Research Award to Transform Education. The associated $1 million prize is supporting a multiyear research project titled “Countering the Unintended Consequences of School Reforms: Communally-Bonded Schools, Reconnecting Black Students, Strengthening Communities and Improving Educational Outcomes.”

His project centers on the idea of communally bonded schools, examining the relationship that students have with their schools and how a sense of connectedness and trust can lead to improved academic outcomes.

He is working with teams in St. Louis Public Schools, the Jennings School District and the Ferguson-Florissant School District to conduct ethnographic interviews, observations and surveys with school district leaders, educators, families and students.

“What I’m hoping from this work is that from studying these communities, we will have a better sense of those factors that are conducive to inform this communally bonded model,” Morris said last fall. “Some of the work I’ve done was based on elementary schools. Now, I’m incorporating middle and high schools into that theoretical research. We will have a better sense of what communally bonded schools look like.”

Junior Faculty Investigator of the Year: Michael Gearhart

Gearhart was working toward his PhD at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2014, when Ferguson, Missouri, erupted in protests that filled national newscasts for days following the killing of Michael Brown.

But he’s been investigating how that community has recovered since he joined the faculty in the School of Social Work in 2017.

His first research project, completed last year, examined the effectiveness of efforts undertaken by the Ferguson Community Empowerment Center to address the challenges faced by the city’s residents and also getting started on work examining police-resident relationships in the wake of the Brown’s death.

He’s since started another project focused on Ferguson residents and their assessments of the community, almost seven years later, though the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated conducting interviews.

He wants to talk to people about what’s changed, what hasn’t changed and how they see the media portrayal of Ferguson impacting them personally.

Those conversations delve into their opinions on policing as well as people’s own protest behaviors.

“I want to do research that gets people asking questions and wrestling with the complexity of the world in their heads,” Gearhart said last year.

Co-Investigators of the Year: Nancy Singer, Katherine O’Daniels and Shea Kerkhoff

Singer, O’Daniels and Kerkhoff received $5.1 million in federal funding to help promote evidence-based literacy strategies among local educators and to create online literacy resources.

The funding came as two sub-awards, which are part of a larger grant the U.S. Department of Education made to the state of Missouri for its Comprehensive Literacy State Development program.

Too many students in the St. Louis region face challenges to developing literacy skills, and there’s been research showing that inequalities related to socio-economic status and race are replicated in literacy.

Students also face an additional barrier to comprehension if the language they speak at school is different than the language used at home.

“Part of what we hope to do with this grant is to bring more culturally responsive literacy education to all of our students,” Kerkhoff said last fall.

She and her co-principal investigators will partner with about 40 schools – kindergarten through 12th grade – in the St. Louis region to support literacy education with a focus on schools in the Promise Zone.

UMSL will also will develop literacy instruction resources that will be turned into modules hosted on the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education website.

Innovator of the Year: Jianli Pan

Pan worked with his graduate researcher, Jianyu Wang, to develop a way to use blockchain technology and smart contracts to help harden security for Internet of Things devices.

“It’s automatic policy enforcement,” Pan said when describing his invention last winter. “No manual intervention is needed. We deploy the smart contract up front. It’s like a contract between these devices and the owner. It says you have to obey these rules or you have to follow these rules. Whenever these devices try to do some malicious things, it will automatically penalize them or block them.”

It’s a potentially valuable advancement in a world where so many of the gadgets and appliances people use most often in their day-to-day lives are linked via the internet, raising security risks even as they bring ease and convenience to everyday life.

Using blockchain is a way to create accountability because it keeps an encrypted record of the activities and transactions in which devices are involved.

The Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored Pan and Wang with its Inventor of the Year Award last fall.

Pan and Tamara Wilgers, the director of intellectual property administration and commercialization in the Office of Research and Economic & Community Development, secured a patent for the technology and are working to license the patent rights to industry.

Below are lists of the past recipients of each award. (Note: Not every award is given out each year)

Senior Faculty Investigator of the Year Award Winners

  • 2021: Jerome Morris, E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor of Urban Education, Department of Educator Preparation & Leadership
  • 2020: Brendolyn Bailey-Burch, senior research associate, Missouri Institute of Mental Health
  • 2019: Beth Huebner, professor, Department of Criminology & Criminal Justice
  • 2018: David Tate, associate research professor, MIMH
  • 2017: Alexei Demchenko, Curators’ Professor, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry
  • 2015: Sharon Johnson, professor, Social Work
  • 2014: Robert Paul, professor, Department of Psychology
  • 2013: Matthew Hile, research associate professor, MIMH

Junior Faculty Investigator of the Year Award Winners

  • 2021: Michael Gearhart, assistant professor, School of Social Work
  • 2020: Sharlee Climer, assistant professor, Department of Mathematics and Computer Science
  • 2019: Billy Dunaway, assistant professor, Department of Philosophy
  • 2018: Jianli Pan, assistant professor, Department of Mathematics and Computer Science
  • 2017: James Shuls, assistant professor, Department of Educator Preparation & Leadership
  • 2014: Mindy Steiniger, assistant professor, Department of Biology
  • 2013: April Regester, assistant professor, College of Education

Co-Investigators of the Year Award Winners

  • 2021: Nancy Singer, associate dean and associate professor, College of Education; Katherine O’Daniels, assistant teaching professor, Department of Educator Preparation & Leadership; and Shea Kerkhoff, assistant professor, Department of Educator Preparation & Leadership
  • 2020: Keith Stine, professor and chair, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry; and Alexei Demchenko, Curators’ Distinguished Professor, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry
  • 2019 (new award in 2019): Melinda Bier, senior research scientist, Center for Character & Citizenship Education; and Marvin Berkowitz, Sanford N. McDonnell Endowed Professor for Character Education, Department of Education Preparation & Leadership

Faculty Inventor/Innovator of the Year Award

  • 2021: Jianli Pan, associate professor, Department of Computer Science
  • 2020: Carl Bassi, Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor, College of Optometry
  • 2018: George Gokel, professor, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry
  • 2017: Zhi Xu, associate professor, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry
  • 2015: Haitao Li, associate professor, College of Business Administration
  • 2014: Janet Braddock-Wilking, associate professor, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry
  • 2013: Xuemin “Sam” Wang, E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor of Plant Science, Department of Biology
Steve Walentik

Steve Walentik