by Dr. Taylor Eighmy
Vice President for Research Taylor Eighmy discusses the advancement of discovery through the notions of transdisciplinary scholarship, and multi-institutional and multipartner collaborations.
The way forward in advancing discovery is through the power of collaborative partnerships. This is especially the case around two notions: transdisciplinary scholarship, and multi-institutional and multipartner (businesses or federal agencies and foundations) collaborations.
The federal government, foundations, private sectors and even benefactors are becoming more interested in solving intractable problems or making transformative advances via these two notions.
Increasingly, the research and development (R&D) funding made available by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other competitive science and technology R&D agencies is becoming more and more multi-institutional in nature. This trend was noted by NSF director Subra Suresh in his remarks on the notion of “science and engineering without borders” at a Feb. 18, 2011, presentation to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The agency, to a greater extent, is directing its resources to multi-institutional and multidisciplinary collaborations.
Evidence of this is readily available in the agency’s multidisciplinary funding portfolio in neural science, sustainability, high-performance computing, Antarctic research, ecosystem observations, and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education innovation. Even more so, the international collaborations in science are growing dramatically. The National Science Board’s 2010 report on the “Globalization of Science and Engineering Research” further reinforces this notion.
Some of the very best research universities in the country have been engaging in effective interdisciplinary research for quite some time. As reported by NSF in its July 2011 report, “Academic Research and Development Expenditures: Fiscal Year 2009,” some of the top institutions in the Association of American Universities (AAU) have significant contributions to their research expenditures (in pass-throughs), reflecting the importance of this paradigm shift. Specifically, the top 20 AAU institutions (based on total research expenditures) that reported pass-through expenditures for 2009 have significant numbers ranging from $39 million (University of Illinois) to $189 million (Johns Hopkins University), with averages of $70 million derived from multidisciplinary research. These tend to reflect about 10 percent to 25 percent of all expenditures at these institutions. For 17 of the 20 institutions, these pass-through expenditures have significantly increased from 2006 to 2009. This trend suggests that these institutions lead big initiatives, but also team with others on big initiatives.
Closer to home, some of our recent large federal awards from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in food safety and the Department of Energy (DOE) in wind energy also reflect this trend.
I would like to explore this concept through four examples that are relevant for us today:
The Large Hadron Collider at CERN
Researchers at Texas Tech, associated with the experiment at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, hope to discover evidence of new particles that could answer questions about the evolution of the early universe.
Photo of Large Hadron Collider at CERN.
Some of the most profound research ever conducted is taking place at the most powerful particle accelerator deep underground at the Switzerland-France border at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (commonly known as CERN). There, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) accelerates two beams of subatomic particles called hadrons – either protons or lead ions – that travel in opposite directions inside the circular accelerator, gaining energy with every lap. The two beams are then allowed to collide so that the fundamental building blocks of energy and matter are detected at immensely high energies – conditions closely approximating those suggested by the big-bang theory. Teams of physicists from around the world are analyzing the particles created in the collisions using special detectors. One of the detectors, the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS), is set 100 meters underground and is one of the biggest in the world, measuring 21 meters in length, 15 meters in diameter and weighing a total of 14,000 metric tons.
The CMS experiment is one of the largest international scientific collaborations in history, presently involving more than 4,300 individuals – including more than 4,000 scientists, engineers and students – from 172 institutes in 40 countries. What is really exciting is that Texas Tech has 13 faculty, staff and students participating via the High Energy Physics Group and was one of the lead designers of the Forward Hadron Calorimeter used with the CMS.
This collaboration around discovery is very powerful – Texas Tech University physicists collaborate extensively in their quest to seek elusive new fundamental matter, which, if found, could answer some of the most elusive questions about the structure of matter and the evolution of the early universe.
The National Supercomputing Network
TACC's newest high-performance computing system, Lonestar 4, offers nearly 200 million computing hours per year to researchers.
Photo of Lonestar courtesy TACC.
In February 2011, the University of Texas at Austin went fully operational with Lonestar 4, a Dell high-performance supercomputer capable of 302 teraflops of computation (302 trillion computations per second). This high-performance supercomputer is one of a number of supercomputers at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC). Though not the fastest supercomputer in the world, Lonestar 4 has architecture that allows it to perform complex computations on “grand challenge” problems that typically involve large-scale scientific phenomena.
TTU, along with Texas A&M University, is a partner with the TACC around the Lonestar 4 acquisition. TTU invested $1 million, on top of the $12 million NSF proposal received by the consortium, to establish this supercomputing system. To date, more than 10 TTU faculty members have made use of central processing unit time on Lonestar 4. Their projects have ranged from using numerical models to visualize turbulent boundary layer wind flow in the lower atmosphere, to down-scaling hemispheric climate models to regional and sub-regional scales, to modeling plaque growth in arteries, to modeling exocytosis.
Lonestar 4 is part of the NSF TeraGrid program. Established in 2001, the NSF TeraGrid was conceived to foster a distributed “terascale” national supercomputer system. Originally, the TeraGrid project involved four members: the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; University of California, San Diego; the University of Chicago Argonne National Laboratory; and the California Institute of Technology. It now involves 17 institutions, including TACC and TTU, and has been given a new program name: The Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment (XSEDE).
Here at TTU, we have our own High Performance Computing Center. However, our opportunities to compute and store data through XSEDE and the national supercomputing network are very important to our discovery science and our collaborative opportunities that lie ahead of us.
U.S. Department of the Interior Regional Climate Science Center
Researchers Arsuffi, Hayhoe and Zak speak about the importance of the newly-formed South-Central Climate Science Center and the significant leadership role of Texas Tech University within the consortium.
Texas Tech has had a longstanding relationship with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) within the U.S. Department of the Interior. We host a fish and wildlife cooperative research unit, one of 50 nationally. The unit is located in the College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources. We also host a USGS water resources team within the Department of Geosciences in the College of Arts & Sciences. Collectively, we have about 10 federal scientists working on campus.
These close and fully established partnerships with the federal government allowed us to be particularly well positioned to compete for a regional climate science center funded by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Efforts began well over a year before proposals were due. We reached out to many institutions in the region (Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma). Our initial conversation with the College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences and the National Weather Center at the University of Oklahoma (OU) were particularly promising.
Just over a month ago, we announced that the consortium of OU, TTU, Oklahoma State University, Louisiana State University, the Chickasaw Nation, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL) at Princeton University were successful in receiving a five-year, $25 million award to host the South Central Regional Climate Science Center. Texas Tech will play a significant leadership role within the consortium in addressing regional responses of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems to changes in precipitation and temperatures. This collaboration is already leading to other “big idea” collaborative explorations with some of our partners.
Texas Tech University and El Paso Community College
TTU has an important partnership with El Paso Community College (EPCC). They applied for and received a $5.9 million cooperative Hispanic-Serving Institutions – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (HSI-STEM) grant from the U.S. Department of Education to expand its innovative 2+2 architectural program targeting Hispanic students in the El Paso region. The award is for five years and was made in September 2011 (Read more about the award).
The partnership began much earlier, however. In 2007 TTU and EPCC launched a pilot 2+2 joint architecture program in the city. The intent was to draw students from the region through EPCC or other regional community colleges and later to Texas Tech. This collaboration had much history associated with it and was designed as a longstanding, mutually beneficial partnership.
The National Architectural Accrediting Board is working with TTU and EPCC on a national model for community-to-university degree pathways in architecture.
Photo of Architecture Building at Texas Tech University.
An article authored by Dr. Julie Williams and her colleagues from the University of New Hampshire and Dr. Linda Hayden and her colleagues at Elizabeth City State University, titled “Building a Model of Collaboration Between Historically Black and Historically White Universities,” describes three principles and six practices that framed a very successful collaboration that has been in place since 2004 and continues to this day for these two institutions.
The TTU-EPCC partnership has many of the practices identified in the above-mentioned paper, including institutional commitment and faculty engagement, mutual benefit and respect, engaged leaders, and growth and evolution of the partnership. The program also is an excellent model for increasing Hispanic student educational access and facilitating student transition from community college to university in the STEM field of architecture. The model can be applied to many other collaborations and disciplines here in Texas and nationally.
“Not only will this program impact the number of graduates and certified professional architects in the U.S., but it also has the potential to serve as a replicable national model for Hispanic student access from community college to university in the STEM field of architecture,” said Valerie Paton, co-principal investigator who also serves as the vice provost for planning and assessment and interim dean of the TTU University College. “It may alter the profile of professional education in architecture across the state of Texas and the nation.”
TTU has used this partnership model before. For instance, in 2008, the university was awarded a similar grant for $5 million over a three-year period, in partnership with El Centro College in Dallas, the TTU Department of Biological Sciences and the Trinity River Audubon Society. As noted by Paton, the collaborations have provided increased access for under-represented students to first attend regional community college and then complete their undergraduate degree at TTU.
As we grow as a major public research university, these innovative transdisciplinary, and multi-institutional and multipartner collaborations will become integrated into our discovery efforts. TTU is already taking steps in that direction with our successes such as the Climate Science Center, various educational partnerships, our efforts with CERN and the National Supercomputing Network, among others. These current accomplishments bode well for the future of our growing research institution.
Dr. Taylor Eighmy is Vice President for Research at Texas Tech University. Feature image of CERN. Video produced by Scott Irlbeck, Office of Communications & Marketing.