Exciting Research in 2021

Several projects in almost every academic field promise a bright beginning to NYUAD’s research enterprise as faculty look ahead.

Research at NYU Abu Dhabi is looking ahead to 2021 with promise to progress research in ways that will help humanity deal with some of its biggest challenges and unlock the mysteries of our world. In almost every field, hundreds of faculty at the University are pushing knowledge generation in the UAE and around the world. Here is a selection of some of the most interesting projects aimed to be delivered this year. 

Himalayan Water Project

The Geopolitics and Ecology of Himalayan Water is a new project of the eARThumanities at NYU Abu Dhabi, in collaboration with the Rachel Carson Center, LMU Munich. For 2021, the initiative will draw attention to and promote research on mounting water security challenges of Asian countries for which the Himalayan water supply constitutes the most important lifeline. The initiative aspires in addition to become a hub for curricular development and interdisciplinary connections, drawing the geopolitics and ecology of Himalayan water into comparative analysis of human-environment challenges. Proposed areas of research include history, biology, engineering, anthropology, and food security, with additional output expected across a wide range of media, including film, policy papers, and journalism. The initiative will advance interdisciplinary research and collaboration across divisions and research units at NYU Abu Dhabi, NYU’s Global Network, and other important international institutions.

Engineered Traffic

Saif Eddin Jabari, assistant professor of civil and urban engineering, is researching the development of a suite of advanced analytics tools for urban traffic management. As a principal investigator at NYUAD’s CITIES lab, Jabari and his team develop tools that combine statistical and machine learning techniques with traffic physics to address traffic operations problems. They utilize a unique high-resolution dataset obtained from local agencies in the UAE to test new algorithms for real-time traffic reconstruction and forecasting, adaptive traffic light control, and incident detection. Such forecasts can improve coordination between consecutive traffic signals and help prevent spillbacks during peak demand periods.

Mental Processing Speed

The main driver behind David Melcher’s research is how the brain constructs our subjective experience of the world, in space and time, as we actively engage with our surroundings. His research investigates the interaction of perception, attention, memory and action within a cognitive neuroscience framework. Melcher’s research projects involve behavioral and neuroimaging experiments on how the mind and brain work, at a fundamental mechanistic level, but also in how these principles apply in areas such as the visual arts, design and in clinical and sub-clinical populations. In the upcoming year, Melcher will focus on planning a large, multi-experiment project to investigate the speed of mental processing, how it varies over time depending on emotional state and other factors, how it differs from person to person, and how these individual differences are linked to aging, personality and expertise in things like video game playing or driving.

Ghana’s Small Enterprises


Morgan Hardy and Jamie MacCasland are working on a project on small enterprises and emergency assistance in Ghana. While a majority of workers in low-income countries are own-account, a sizable share is wage employed in informal firms, or those with limited taxation and government monitoring. The duo is looking to answer the question: does the logic of firm assistance and job retention programs in the formal sector apply to firms and wage employees in the informal sector? And is firm survival sufficient to avoid job destruction or must assistance take the form of implicit or explicit pass-through to workers? This project uses randomized income transfers to firms and workers to test implementation modalities for small firm emergency assistance, measuring effects on firm survival, job retention, wages, and firm owner and worker income smoothing. The researchers aim to provide scalable policy evidence, and to use the experiment to explore deeper questions about whether, when, and to what effect informal firms insure their workers against shocks.

The Water Research Center

The focus and drive of the Water Research Center, led by Professor of Engineering Nidal Hilal, aims to tackle water resource challenges brought upon by population growth and climate change. The center brings faculty from engineering and science to research water scarcity and improving resource management. The current and future research of the center ranges from fundamental nanoscale studies to industrial scale implementation of new technology. 

Off to Space

Professor of Physics Francesco Arneodo, the associate dean of science, and Assistant Professor of Practice of Physics Mallory Roberts are in the process of developing a fast gamma-ray detector to be placed in a Cubesat, to ultimately be deployed on a mission to space, to study terrestrial gamma ray flashes. Extensive work on the software and hardware on the gamma-ray detector has been done at the lab in NYUAD. Tests will be conducted on the payload as a final checkup before being shipped to Japan for the launch later this year.

Next Generation Artificial Intelligence

Muhammed Shafiq, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, is the head of eBRAIN, an NYUAD lab that has been investigating innovative foundations for the next-generation artificial intelligence systems. The upcoming research roadmap of Shafique’s lab at NYUAD encompasses various aspects of brain-inspired computing including, developing AI systems capable of lifelong learning, privacy-preserving and unbiased computer learning for society, self-powered autonomous systems for eco industries, emerging nano-technologies, and leveraging these advancements to build next-generation embedded AI systems for smart healthcare, agriculture, robotics, and energy & industrial sectors.

COVID-19 in Uganda

COVID-19 has caused major social, economic, and political disruptions around the world. This project examines the impact of COVID-19 in Uganda’s capital city, Kampala. Assistant Professor of Political Science Melina Platas and her team conducted a set of phone-based surveys between June and December 2020 with a representative sample of around 2000 Kampala residents to study the social, health, and economic impact of COVID-19, and to assess levels of knowledge about COVID-19, compliance with public health policies, and citizens’ perceptions of government performance. An important goal of our effort is to provide timely information about the economic impact of government policies to decision-makers. 

Gene Expression

Piergiorgio Percipalle is a cell biologist who studies molecular genetics. His group is interested in how impaired mechanisms of genome organization correlate with the onset of neurodegenerative diseases. One of his latest papers, a collaboration with numerous other NYUAD faculty including Kris Gunsalus and Pance Naumov, was published in Advanced Science and the novel findings provide new paradigms and research avenues for a better understanding of how bone cells are generated and maintained in our bodies. His team recently discovered that the cytoskeletal protein actin is necessary for the underlying order that ensures correct 3-D architecture of the genome. Importantly, these mechanisms are important for gene expression during cellular differentiation and they seem to impact organismal physiology. These results are currently under review in a highly ranked peer-reviewed scientific journal.

Societies and Norms

Nikos Nikiforakis researches the ability to predict when societies will replace one social norm for another and its implications for welfare, especially when norms are detrimental. A popular theory poses that the pressure to conform to social norms creates tipping thresholds which, once passed, propel societies toward an alternative state. Predicting when societies will reach a tipping threshold, however, has been a major challenge due to the lack of experimental data for evaluating competing models. Nikiforakis and his team present evidence from a large-scale lab experiment designed to test the theoretical predictions of a threshold model for social tipping. In our setting, societal preferences change gradually, forcing individuals to weigh the benefit from deviating from the norm against the cost from not conforming to the behavior of others. We show that the model accurately predicts social tipping and norm change in 96% of experimental societies. Strikingly, when individuals determine the cost for non-conformity themselves, they set it too high, causing the persistence of detrimental norms. We also show that instigators of change tend to be more risk tolerant and to dislike conformity more. Our findings demonstrate the value of threshold models for understanding social tipping in a broad range of social settings and designing policies to promote welfare.