Sept. 4, 2018


National Academies Keck Futures Initiative Announces Winners of the NAKFI Challenge

WASHINGTON -- The National Academies Keck Futures Initiative (NAKFI) is pleased to announce the recipients of three $500,000 NAKFI Challenge awards. A 15-year, $40 million dollar program funded by the W.M. Keck Foundation, NAKFI was initiated in 2003 to break down barriers between fields and to promote interdisciplinary research. The NAKFI Challenge awards support activities that will carry forward NAKFI’s work beyond its 15 years as an activity of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

Open only to NAKFI alumni who participated in the program’s annual interdisciplinary conferences, the call for proposals generated 78 applications. Applications underwent a round of peer-to-peer community judging by fellow applicants. The 30 highest scoring proposals were then judged by an expert panel consisting of members of NAKFI conference organizing committees. The three winners were chosen by the presidents of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the National Academy of Medicine.

The recipients, with NAKFI alumni in bold, and their project titles are:

Jody Deming, University of Washington
* Fiscal agent for grant, Djerassi Residents Artists Program
Daniel Kohn, Kohnworkshop
Heather R. Spence, Marine & Bioacoustics Programs, Michelle's Earth Foundation (GRACIASS)
Jonathan Berger, Stanford University
Timothy J. Broderick, Institute for Human and Machine Cognition
Margot H. Knight, Djerassi Residents Artists Program
Timothy W. Weaver, University of Denver
Ocean Memory: A New Cross-Disciplinary Approach to Global-Scale Challenges
Memory involves the recall of events, pruned and processed from countless recordings by neural networks and thereby shaping future behavior. The ocean and its inhabitants hold memories of events throughout the evolution of the planet, awaiting our cognition. This proposal established a thriving community exploring and expressing Ocean Memory, a new line of highly evocative scientific inquiry , aiming for a sea change in our ability to address challenges of the Anthropocene. The approach builds upon NAKFI best practices, spanning disciplines required to address agents of memory and adding novel elements of distributed interactive spaces and grants for cross-disciplinary mentoring.

Bonnie Keeler, Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota
Jessica Hellmann and Fred Rose, Institute on the Environment, University of Minnesota
Elena Bennett, McGill University
Peter Kareiva, University of California, Los Angeles
Lydia Olander, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, Duke University
Institutionalizing Interdisciplinarity: A cross-institutional network to synthesize what is working (and not) in the pursuit of transformative sustainability science
Interdisciplinary research is necessary to tackle urgent societal challenges, yet institutional barriers hinder these efforts. Conventional systems reward individual work over collaboration and conformity over risk-taking, dis-incentivizing engagement with “real world” problems. While universities have invested in institutes, graduate programs, and other cross-cutting mechanisms, they remain uncoordinated experiments with limited contribution to systemic change. This project aims to change that by creating a cross-university network to review and synthesize three central challenges to institutionalizing interdisciplinarity: measuring impact, supporting students, and fostering co-development. The models will be drawn from sustainability science – an emerging field that spans natural and social sciences.

Kentaro Toyama and Mustafa Naseem, University of Michigan School of Information
Melissa Densmore, University of Cape Town
Agha Ali Raza, Information Technology University
Digital Street Theater for Global Maternal and Child Health Education
High or rising rates of maternal and child death are an urgent global issue – shockingly, including  in the United States. Causes differ by country, but mothers’ health knowledge and habits play a key role in reducing mortality in all contexts. Mortality rates, however, are highest among low-literacy families; those who most need health education are least equipped to absorb it from mainstream sources. This proposal combines old traditions with new technology – street-theater health skits shared via locally available digital channels – in three countries (Pakistan, South Africa, and the United States) so as to identify globally generalizable solutions.

Two proposed projects received honorable mentions:

Robert Froemke, New York University School of Medicine
Maryam Sanechi, University of Southern California
Jonathan Viventi, Duke University
Smart Neuroprosthetics: Brain-Machine Interfaces for the 21st Century
The goal of this project is to build an interface between the human brain and electronic systems. Currently, all devices that interface with the body use passive, individually wired electrodes, connected to remote electronics. The proposal aims to develop a new generation of brain-machine interfaces that use active, flexible electronics to interface with the brain at 1,000X higher spatial resolution than available today. Functional capacity will be tested in two domains: sensory restoration with hearing aids, and recovery of motor control after paralysis or spinal cord injury. This technology opens an entirely new window into understanding brain function, and building truly high-performance brain-machine interfaces.

Jose L. Contreras-Vidal and Dario Robleto, University of Houston
Juliet King, Indiana University School of Medicine and Herron School of Art and Design
Aesthetic Neurotherapeutics: Towards a Safe, Effective, and Noninvasive Arts Prescription (ArtRx) Program to Treat Physical, Neurological, and Mental Disability
An interdisciplinary team of engineers, clinicians, and art professionals have joined together with the goal of developing an innovative closed-loop system that treats physical, neurological, and mental health disorders by modulating noninvasively the brain activity via precise and intelligent aesthetic (music, visual, dance) stimulation (ArtRx). The ArtRx team will validate the concept of aesthetic stimuli as powerful neurotherapeutics via personalized aesthetic-driven modulation of brain activity. This will be achieved by testing the brain’s response to a range of aesthetic ‘drivers’ including visual art, music, and expressive movement (dance), to quantify the dose-response and neuromodular preference to creative arts therapy interventions.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and the W.M. Keck Foundation believe that considerable scientific progress and social benefit will be achieved by providing a counterbalance to the tendency to isolate research within academic fields. The Futures Initiative enabled researchers from different disciplines to focus on new questions and entirely new research, and to encourage better communication among scientists as well as between the scientific community and the public. For more information about the NAKFI Challenge, please visit For more information about the W.M. Keck Foundation, please visit

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. The Academies operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln.

Molly Galvin, Director, Executive Communications
Office of News and Public Information
Anne Heberger Marino, Senior Program Director
National Academies Keck Futures Initiative