UNIVERSTY PARK, Pa. — Seven Penn State faculty members have been awarded research and seed grants by Penn State’s Center for the Study of Sports in Society. The grants are the first to be given to faculty by the multidisciplinary center, which supports research, teaching, public programs and service across the University related to the study of sport and its cultural, economic and social impacts.

The research grant awardees are Jessamyn Abel, assistant professor of Asian studies and history; Francisco Javier Lopez Frias, assistant professor of kinesiology; Cairsty DePasquale, assistant professor of biology at Penn State Altoona; and Michelle Sikes, visiting assistant professor of kinesiology. Along with the faculty research grants, seed funding was awarded to Ram M. Narayanan, professor of electrical engineering; Dr. Cayce A. Onks, assistant professor of family medicine and orthopedics in Penn State’s College of Medicine; and Shengxi Huang, assistant professor of electrical engineering.

Opened in 2016, the Center for the Study of Sports in Society is a multi-college organization dedicated to bringing various groups together to tackle issues facing the sports industry.

“These research and seed grants are designed to encourage and nurture innovative scholarship at the intersection between sport and society,” said Mark Dyreson, professor of kinesiology and the center’s director for educational programs and research. “We’re so pleased to be able to offer these grants to junior faculty members with the hope they’ll develop a career-long interest in research that advances our understanding of the role sports play in society — from the Olympics to athletes’ health.”

The faculty research grants —totaling $15,000 — will support interdisciplinary research in any field that advances understanding of the role of sports in society, while the seed grants — totaling $7,500 — are targeted to projects that explore new strategies in collecting and analyzing sports data. This theme also is the focus of a conference on sport analytics that the center will host April 12-13 at University Park.

The faculty research and seed grant awardees are:

Jessamyn Abel

With an interest in cultural history and international relations, Abel, assistant professor of Asian studies and history, will examine the use of Olympic symbolism and rhetoric in Japan. By comparing the political use of rhetoric during preparations to host the Tokyo games in 1940, 1964 and 2020, Abel hopes to identify common methods by which political actors have attempted to advance unpopular, controversial and even illegal political goals by packaging them in the “Olympic spirit.” She’ll also explore the ways these efforts have impacted sporting contests and consumption of the games over time.

Cairsty DePasquale

While the benefits of exercise on physical health are well documented, the relationship of exercise on mental health is still being unveiled. DePasquale, assistant professor of biology at Penn State Altoona, will explore the connection between exercise and the brain, and how exercise influences cognition through animal behavior. DePasquale will study groups of zebrafish to examine their learning ability and neural plasticity.

Francisco Javier Lopez Frias

Frias, assistant professor of kinesiology, will examine the philosophical foundations of the works of Canadian sport philosopher Bernard Suits, who is regarded as one of the most influential figures in the recent philosophy of sport. Frias will travel to Suits’ archives at the University of Waterloo to study his recorded lectures, class notes and unpublished works. Since no publication in the sport philosophical literature has yet to draw on the materials in these archives, Frias hopes to clarify aspects of Suits’ work and revitalize the philosophical debate on the nature of games, sports and the good life.

Shengxi Huang

Monitoring the health of athletes is an important component of sports study, and can be achieved by sensing chemicals and biomolecules in athletes’ perspiration and blood. Huang, an assistant professor of electrical engineering, will build a bio-sensing platform that can simply and effectively monitor the health of athletes both during exercise and over time. This project also will help inform the effects of sports on health for the wider public.

Ram M. Narayanan and Dr. Cayce A. Onks

After a sports injury, athletes’ recoveries are often judged by a doctor based on tests under static conditions. Together, Narayanan, professor of electrical engineering, and Onks, assistant professor of family medicine and orthopedics, will conduct a clinical assessment of sports injuries using radar, which has the potential to characterize human gait and limb activity under dynamic conditions. By capturing details of human movement using the micro-Doppler effect, an athlete’s recovery can be more precisely monitored and compared to data from when they were at peak performance.

Michelle Sikes

Why are Olympic distance runners from East Africa so successful? While many have offered reasons from altitude and diet to psychology and physiology, Sikes, a visiting assistant professor of kinesiology, will examine the tradition from a historical perspective spanning 1896 to 2020. Through a focus on the Olympics and African runners, including but not limited to those from Kenya and Ethiopia, Sikes’ project will shed light on how African long-distance running developed historically, as well as the local and global impact of the sport today.

To learn more about the Sports Analytics Conference in April, visit the conference website. In addition, the Center for the Study of Sports in Society is a sponsor of the inaugural Penn State Sports Business Conference on March 15 and 16 at University Park.