All groundbreaking, earth-changing, multidisciplinary research has something in common: a starting point.
And the UI Graduate College’s Focal Point grant program has been providing that starting point for the past three years.
According to Debasish Dutta, the dean of the Graduate College, the program is designed to team faculty members and graduate students from sometimes far-flung disciplines with the hopes that together they’ll find a mutual spark leading to the next paradigm-shifting discovery.
“This is something that is normally done by faculty members,” Dutta said, “but we wanted to have graduate students be involved from the formation itself. It’s a huge advantage to them because they’ll have to do that as they become faculty members.”
He said the collaborative effort changes the very dynamic of the exploration, and offers graduate students an opportunity to engage in problem formulation of a multidisciplinary project.
“It’s very student-centric because it puts the graduate student at the center of it all,” he said.
The Graduate College is currently accepting applications for 2012-13 Focal Point grants. Applications are due March 26 and announced in July.
“This is about creating new intellectual spaces at the interface of disciplines, requiring everyone to leave their comfort zones,” Dutta said. “It’s a starting point for momentum.”
An example of that momentum is the 2010-11 Focal Point project led by Michael J. Plewa, a professor of genetics in the department of crop sciences and coordinator of the Focal Point project, and Brian Miller, the director of the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant College Program.
With a nod to one of the themes of the 2002 United Nations Millennium Project, the two set out to develop strategies to combat the global water crisis, enlisting a team of five graduate students and several faculty members from civil and environmental engineering, crop sciences, food science and human nutrition, and the interdisciplinary Environmental Toxicology Program.
The result has led beyond the “concept” of effective collaboration and to three grant-funded research projects, including one from the National Science Foundation and another from the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as the opportunity to present the work at an upcoming Gordon Research Conference.
The team focused on the toxicological aspects of water quality and quantity, specifically addressing adverse after-effects of purification agents, and the novel technologies required to address that in the future.
“I think our experience could be the poster child for interdisciplinary activity,” Plewa said. “It turned out to be a very good experience for the students.”
The resulting project, “Water for Life: Addressing a 21st Century Crisis,” featured a fall 2010 weekly speaker series designed to inspire the agricultural/toxicology/engineering group to start thinking collaboratively and more expansively.
To maximize the experience, Plewa and Miller secured matching funds from the participating colleges. To make the funding go farther, speakers stayed at Plewa’s house.
The earthy approach paid further dividends as graduate students were given ample opportunity to mingle with the roster of revolving speakers – all within the cozy confines of the host’s house.
“We always talk about bringing in people from diverse areas, but we enhanced the experience for the graduate students,” he said. “That was the goal here and I think the metrics for success for Focal Point have been very good.”
Project partner Miller said his experience was similar. He said the time that students and speakers had together would continue to pay dividends.
“The exposure they got to a variety of issues was immense,” he said. “It was good for us as faculty members, too, because we got to talk to and meet people who were doing things we didn’t even know about. With engineering, they’re on the north side of campus and we’re on the south side; we’re literally in two different worlds.”
He said he could see changes in the way students started approaching some of the problems being faced.
“I think it was the first time they had thought about the importance of the diversity in water science and how it would be used,” he said. “I think the students have realized the importance of teamwork. It was a small investment that has really paid off.”
Seven projects were funded the first year (academic year 2009-10), seven were funded the next year and last year the list expanded to eight.
Grants can be as high as $15,000 and are expected to culminate with a campus workshop, presentation or new course offering. According to Rayvon Fouché, the associate dean in the Graduate College who oversees the initiative, “Focal Point has created a vibrant intellectual space where cultural diversity is championed and international collaboration is nourished. The work of the Focal Point awardees provides cogent evidence that in challenging economic times universities still are well positioned to examine, explore and address the needs and demands of our ever-evolving world.”
Fouché said many of the projects have led to new courses or grant funding, but that all have created cross-disciplinary partnerships whose relevance may yet be discovered.
“To answer the compelling societal questions of our current historical moment, everyone needs to participate, contribute and think,” he said. “Future knowledge production needs both social and humanistic expertise as much as it needs scientific and technical skill. By providing an opportunity to traverse familiar institutional barriers, Focal Point contributes to this larger societal project.”
More information on Focal Point, including past projects or how to submit an online proposal, is online.
More interdisciplinary opportunities
By Mike Helenthal
The UI hopes to build on its recent success in the National Science Foundation’s Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship grant program and is hosting a Jan. 30 informational meeting about the selection process.
“We have turned the corner and the momentum is building,” said Debasish Dutta, the dean of the Graduate College, noting that UI faculty members have for the past three years secured IGERT grants, which average $3.2 million each and focus directly on involving graduate students in interdisciplinary scientific research.
IGERT was started by NSF in 1997, but the UI didn’t earn an IGERT grant for nearly 12 years.
In 2009 UI won its first IGERT in neuroengineering, led by electrical and computer enginering professors Doug Jones and Todd Coleman. A second IGERT was earned in 2010 by Professor Rashid Bashir and his group in cellular and molecular mechanics and bionanotechnology. Last year UI received its third IGERT when Professors Andy Suarez and Gene Robinson were successful in vertically integrated training with genomics.
The Graduate College is hoping other university departments use the groundswell of success to further tap into NSF funding. The Jan. 30 informational meeting, to be held from 9-10 a.m. in Room 304 Coble Hall, is designed to provide the information needed to submit a successful proposal.
“It’s very important and it’s something we want to build on,” Dutta said. “IGERTs not only catalyze new models in graduate education, but also collaboration across disciplines. This creates an environment that supports innovation and preparation of the trainees with skills needed for becoming successful innovators.”
Andrea Golato, an associate dean in the Graduate College, said the IGERT program is important for graduate education because it challenges the status quo and creates new training environments for graduate students.
“IGERT students are educated to recognize how their research might be utilized for an economic or societal benefit and learn the processes that would be required to implement them in practice through hands-on experience,” she said.
The Graduate College is planning to parlay recent interdisciplinary successes with the formation of a campus-based IGERT-styled program aimed at the arts and humanities.
The new program, called INTERSECT, has gotten the attention of campus faculty members, Golato said, because arts and humanities cross-disciplinary funding is not as prevalent as science funding. Deadline for this year’s INTERSECT proposals is Jan. 30.
Dutta said the UI is one of the first university’s to supply such funding, as much as $125,000 annually, for arts and humanities cross-disciplinary work. Though the first proposal process has yet to be completed, he said the interest among faculty has been high.
Registration deadline for the Jan. 30 IGERT informational meeting is Jan. 25.
Campus deadline for IGERT pre-proposals is April 2.