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Breaking New Ground in Interdisciplinary Efforts

A prominent theology scholar at Villanova is working to shift the paradigm when it comes to religion and science research. Jesse Couenhoven, PhD, a professor of Moral Theology in Villanova’s Department of Humanities and Department of Theology, received a $3.9 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation for a new research initiative that will nurture ambitious, science-engaged theological scholarship.

“Such significant funding for interdisciplinary theological research is extremely unusual,” Dr. Couenhoven says. “This grant offers us a rare opportunity to develop new ways of relating religion and science, while exploring vital questions about what it means to live a good human life.”


“We wanted to bring scientists, theologians and theological ethicists together in a way that crosses disciplinary boundaries” 

—Jesse Couenhoven, PhD, professor of Moral Theology


Dr. Couenhoven serves as principal investigator of the grant, "Collaborative Inquiries in Christian Theological Anthropology," which began in August 2020 and will run for three years. 

The grant will fund a team of more than 30 fellows, mentors and educational advisers at 12 partner institutions to collaborate on long-term research projects. 

The topics Dr. Couenhoven and his co-investigators are exploring—human agency, human flourishing and moral development—share a natural overlap with the research interests of experts in social and cognitive psychology, biology, sociology and behavioral economics.

“We wanted to bring scientists, theologians and theological ethicists together in a way that crosses disciplinary boundaries,” he says. “So many fields are actually looking into the same topics, just from their particular points of view.”

Dr. Couenhoven recruited a very specific team of researchers from across the country and the world. Each one had to identify a science consultant who’s an expert on their specific area of interest and will serve as a conversation partner throughout the three years of the grant. 

In addition to their independent research, they’ll also engage with social scientists through a mentoring program and a series of six summer and winter workshops. 

“We’re trying to provide a rigorous model for theologians and theological ethicists to engage more empirical research,” Dr. Couenhoven says. “I’m really excited that we’re trying out a new approach to the way that this kind of interdisciplinary research is done.”


A World of Opportunity

Man in observatory looking up at starry night sky

Thanks to two new grants from the National Science Foundation, Villanova will be able to provide new research training and experiences for students in astronomy, physics and biology. 

Starting next summer, Villanova will become an NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates site, each year giving six undergraduate students from other universities the opportunity to work alongside and be mentored by Villanova faculty researchers.

Amber Stuver, PhD, assistant professor of Physics, and Scott Engle, PhD, assistant professor of Astrophysics and Planetary Science, proposed the site and received a three-year, $227,000 NSF grant this past spring to make it a reality. 

A collaboration between the two departments, the program will engage underrepresented students in physics and astronomy in discovery-based research, professional training and community-building activities. 

Alyssa Stark, PhD, assistant professor of Biology, in collaboration with Steve Yanoviak, PhD, professor of Biology at the University of Louisville, also received an NSF grant that will provide research training and experiences for students at both institutions. 

The $780,534 award will support their research on how environmental factors affect the adhesive performance, behavior and morphology of tropical ants in Panama and Peru.


Scientists Changing the World

This year, three Villanova professors teaching in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences have received the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious awards in support of early-career faculty: 

  • Scott Dietrich, PhD, assistant professor of Physics and an expert in nanoelectronics, received a five-year grant for $594,000 to advance research in quantum materials.
  • Megan Povelones, PhD, assistant professor of Biology, received a five-year grant for $404,000 to expand her current research on the structure and function of mitochondria. 
  • Joseph Toscano, PhD, assistant professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences, received a five-year grant for $605,000 to gain insights into neuroscience that could help build computer systems that process language in ways similar to humans.

The NSF confers its coveted CAREER Awards to early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their organization. 

Since 2017, seven faculty members at Villanova have received this honor, along with funding for a wide range of innovative projects—from artificial intelligence to the impact of homelessness on infants. 

“The continued selection of Villanova professors for NSF CAREER Awards is a testament to the strength of Villanova’s teacher-scholar model,” says Patrick G. Maggitti, PhD, University provost. “Our faculty are engaging in groundbreaking scholarship while providing an exceptional educational experience for our students, and it is gratifying to see their work rewarded with these prestigious grants.”