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Collaborative effort

Dr. Laura Taylor and Dr. Joe DeCarolis
Dr. Laura Taylor and Dr. Joe DeCarolis

One of the goals of NC State’s strategic plan is to “enhance interdisciplinary scholarship to address the grand challenges of society.”

While faculty members are already working across disciplinary boundaries to conduct impactful research, the university’s Chancellor’s Faculty Excellence Program has taken that collaboration a step further by creating new faculty positions joined together in interdisciplinary clusters that look at problems in a new way.

Provost Warwick Arden announced the formation of 12 cluster programs in 2012 and a second round of eight more was announced in 2015. Of those eight, five are led or co-led by College of Engineering faculty members.

Those five clusters will make NC State a leader in the development of carbon electronics, improve sanitation and access to clean water in the developing world and further research into microbiomes in plants and animals. The clusters will close the gap between development and implementation of new renewable energy technologies and use digital media to transform how we produce, consume and understand narrative content.

Interdisciplinary research is a popular concept on university campuses, but NC State is turning concept into reality by taking a grass roots approach that allows faculty members to explore new research areas that might be missed with a top-down program, said Dr. John Gilligan, executive associate dean of the College of Engineering.

“The cluster hiring program has gained national attention because we have done it in an organized, deliberate way and it has succeeded, whereas at many other universities it has not,” Gilligan said. “It demonstrates our adaptability, our flexibility and our ability to work together. It is really the theme of the College on Centennial Campus.”

Finding the Right Fit

By the time hiring for the second round of clusters is complete, the program will have added more than 70 new faculty positions across campus. Deciding which academic departments will house those new faculty members is part of the process.

Dr. Francis de los Reyes, professor in the Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering (CCEE), is the coordinator of the new Global Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) cluster. He will work with a cluster search committee to fill four positions.

The cluster, which is seeking practical, scalable solutions to provide clean water and improved sanitation across the globe, has a need for expertise in the fields of engineering, sociology, anthropology, political science, public health, environmental science and entrepreneurship. Who those hires will be, and which departments will house them, will be determined in the hiring process.

As the cluster committees and coordinators conduct hiring searches, they must think not only about how these faculty members will fit within the cluster, but also how they will fit within academic departments.

Support from faculty members helped make the first round of clusters a success, said Dr. Margery Overton, vice provost for academic strategy and coordinator of the cluster program.

Asking faculty members to submit cluster proposals rather than having university leaders mandate which research areas would form clusters has been key, Overton said. So has the way in which new faculty members are recruited and hired.

Dr. Binil Starly, associate professor and director of the Laboratory for Engineering Biological Tissue Systems in the Edward P. Fitts Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISE), came to Raleigh thinking that he would collaborate only with other new hires within his Translational Regenerative Medicine cluster. He soon found collaborators in several existing ISE faculty members and in Dr. Xipeng Shen, an associate professor of computer science and first-round Data-Driven Science cluster hire. The two met at a reception for cluster hires and were soon collaborating on a National Science Foundation grant.

“One of the best unintended consequences that we didn’t anticipate was that engagement across clusters as we are hiring people who are keenly interested in interdisciplinary work,” said Dr. Duane Larick, senior vice provost for academic strategy and resource management.

Filling a Research Gap

Dr. Joe DeCarolis, CCEE associate professor, and Dr. Laura Taylor, professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics and director of the Center for Environmental and Resource Economic Policy in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, saw a gap between the NC State engineering and science research on renewable energy systems and a broader understanding of the economic and social barriers to adoption of those new technologies.

“What we really lacked was the broader perspective,” said DeCarolis, who is co-coordinator with Taylor of the Sustainable Energy Systems and Policy cluster. “We really want to be able to tie that research to broader economic, environmental, social and political considerations. Simply developing new technology is no guarantee that it’s going to be taken up by energy markets.”

Dr. Chase Beisel
Dr. Chase Beisel

Similarly, Dr. Chase Beisel, assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, saw that faculty members across the university were interested in the study of microbiomes and their impacts on plants, animals and the environment. Because of a lack of expertise on microbiomes at NC State, though, those researchers might have to go off-campus to collaborate. That was the impetus for Beisel and Dr. Michael Hyman, a professor of plant and microbial biology, to form the Microbiomes and Complex Microbial Communities cluster.

A New Way to Collaborate

Taylor said the old way of collaborating with an economist meant a researcher would need to bring an economist into a research project at the last minute to meet funding requirements.

“That’s not at all what’s happening,” she said of today’s interdisciplinary environment. “It’s sitting down with our colleagues and trying to figure out our common language. Sometimes we are talking about the same thing but we use different phrases; we may approach the same question in different ways. It takes a while to figure out how your colleagues ask their questions and how they approach finding answers. It’s not only intellectually challenging, it’s energizing to learn these new ways of thinking.”

Faculty members leading these clusters have a chance to fill gaps in research that university leaders or department heads might not see and, in so doing, leave a lasting mark on their department and the university.

De los Reyes saw a way to further his research on global sanitation with a cluster that might one day lead to a center based at NC State.

“I feel like this is the right time, and NC State is the place to do it,” he said.

Engineering Interdisciplinary Solutions

College of Engineering faculty members are coordinators or co-coordinators of five Chancellor’s Faculty Excellence clusters announced in 2015.

Carbon Electronics

Dr. Harald Ade – Department of Physics
Dr. Franky So – Department of Materials Science and Engineering
Carbon and carbon hybrid electronics offer fundamentally new avenues to solve some of the most important grand challenges of the 21st century. This cluster will work to develop international prominence in carbon-based energy, display and detection technology and computation platforms. It envisions a revolution of interrelated technologies, fostering advances in computing, renewable power sources and energy storage.

Global Water, Sanitation and Hygiene

Dr. Francis de los Reyes – Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering
A staggering 2.5 billion people across the globe do not have access to adequate sanitation and almost 750 million people do not have access to safe drinking water. Inspired and anchored by international community-based projects, this cluster will explore the scientific, social and policy issues associated with providing sustainable water and sanitation in the developing world.

Microbiomes and Complex Microbial Communities

Dr. Chase Beisel – Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering
Dr. Michael Hyman – Department of Plant and Microbial Biology
Life on Earth is sustained by innumerable microbial communities ranging in scale from huge oceanic systems to the gut of an insect. This cluster will focus on research concerning communities associated with crop plants, farm animals, insect pests and the environment. Faculty members will create a center of excellence in the analysis and engineering of plant, animal and insect microbiomes and microbial communities.

Sustainable Energy Systems and Policy

Dr. Joe DeCarolis – Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering
Dr. Laura Taylor – Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics
The challenge of sustainable energy will not be met by technology alone; society must also simultaneously consider broader economic, public policy and environmental impacts. This cluster will address such societal challenges related to energy sustainability, with a vision to transform NC State into a hub for transdisciplinary research that informs key energy decisions at state, federal and international levels.

Visual Narrative

Dr. Matthew Booker – Department of History
Dr. Michael Young – Department of Computer Science
Narrative is a central mode of understanding the world around us. As narrative has expanded into digital media, new possibilities arise for the creation and analysis of powerful visual narratives that increasingly pattern our world. This cluster will enable new forms of scholarship and communication, bridging the expertise of engineers, humanists and designers to establish next-generation applications in visual media.

Return to contents or download the Spring/Summer 2016 NC State Engineering magazine (PDF, 3MB).

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