Q&A with MnDRIVE research leaders

MnDRIVE collage

MnDRIVE (Minnesota’s Discovery, Research and InnoVation Economy) is a landmark partnership between the University of Minnesota and the state that aligns areas of university strength with the state’s key and emerging industries to produce breakthrough research that addresses our state and society’s greatest challenges.

In 2013, the Minnesota Legislature authorized $36 million to be invested in four university research areas, and after a year of ramping up, more than 120 projects have been funded, 111 people have been hired and 21 patents and licenses for new technologies have been submitted.

As this groundbreaking effort begins to take shape, these MnDRIVE leaders share what they see as their biggest research challenges and their hopes for what the future holds as a result of this ambitious initiative. Continue reading

Addressing grand challenges through transdisciplinary research

Connecting networks

While the word “transdisciplinary” may not be familiar to many outside of academia, the concept has taken root in universities across the U.S. as a way to bring multiple stakeholders and areas of expertise together to address global challenges in areas such as health care, food systems, energy and the environment.

Referenced in the 2013 Arise 2 report, produced by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, transdisciplinary research provides a strategy for advancing scientific discovery in an environment of uncertain government funding, increasing competition among researchers for limited dollars and the emergence of “wicked problems” occurring on a world-wide scale. Transdisciplinary goes beyond collaborative, multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary in that it aims to leverage existing concepts and approaches from multiple disciplines to create new disciplines and new solutions for a rapidly changing world.

Many national models for transdisciplinary research exist. For example, four universities (Harvard, UC San Diego, University of Pennsylvania, and Washington University in St. Louis) participate in the Transdisciplinary Research on Energetics and Cancer initiative, funded by the National Cancer Institute, to study the complex relationships between obesity, energy balance, nutrition, physical activity and cancer risk. The University of Vermont’s Transdisciplinary Research Initiative is centered on three, major university-wide initiatives in key areas of research strength and impact, and Texas Tech University’s Transdisciplinary Research Academy supports and promotes a range of transdisciplinary research efforts with global reach. Continue reading

Cluster hires pave way for new biology research

DNA chips

When it comes to top research talent, the University of Minnesota is searching the world over.

An article in the Minnesota Daily recently highlighted how the U’s College of Biological Sciences (CBS) is searching across the globe for a number of new faculty members to fill multidisciplinary research areas. CBS aims to use the practice, known as cluster hiring, to bring in the best talent for emerging fields, from cellular biophysics to synthetic biology. Clarence Lehman, the college’s associate dean for research and graduate education, said the approach was a better fit for modern academic pursuits.

“The disciplines in biology that had developed when it was a pure science really don’t apply anymore,” Lehman told the Minnesota Daily. “One has to break them; one has to connect them up.” Continue reading

Harnessing the wind to create sustainable fertilizer

wind turbine in a field

Minnesota farmers send more than $400 million a year out of the state to buy nitrogen fertilizer, most of which comes from outside the U.S. and leaves a hefty carbon footprint.

Now, a team of researchers from across the University of Minnesota has set out to develop a cleaner, more sustainable alternative. Their recipe relies on three abundant resources: air, water and wind.

Coming together under a single project, these researchers are developing a new, wind energy-based production method that allows Minnesotans to produce and purchase renewable fertilizers locally. Their project is part of MnDRIVE (Minnesota’s Discovery, Research and InnoVation Economy), an $18 million annual investment by the state of Minnesota that aims to solve grand challenges in four key areas: robotics, sensors and advanced manufacturing; global food ventures; advancing industry, conserving the environment; and discoveries and treatments for brain conditions. As part of MnDRIVE’s Transdisciplinary Research Program, the sustainable fertilizer project will bridge several of these areas, bringing together experts from across the U to meet farmers’ demand for fertilizer while vastly reducing the carbon emissions released during production. Continue reading

Art and biology grow new perspectives on life

Enigma flower

Many times, new ways of thinking and viewing our world stem not from deliberate planning, but from happy accidents, sparked from a chance meeting or an unexpected question.

The University of Minnesota’s Office of the Vice President for Research is exploring how serendipity can grant new perspectives and lead to new discoveries and breakthrough research. Through its strategic plan, Five Years Forward, a work group made up of faculty from across the U is looking at ways to create new spaces, tools and opportunities for researchers to come together across departments, colleges and disciplines to think creatively and cultivate new ideas. One of these faculty members, Department of Plant Biology professor Neil Olszewski, Ph.D., can attest to the value of serendipitous collaboration from prior experience.

From 2003 to 2008, Olszewski worked with Eduardo Kac, internationally recognized artist and professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, on a project to create a transgenic flower — one that incorporated genes from another organism (in this case human genes). Their efforts brought together art and plant biology in an unprecedented way. Continue reading

Simulation not just for humans anymore

Medical simulation tools (think Resussa Annie) have long been in use to train new doctors in the treatment of human patients. The latest simulation technology, such as that being created at the University of Minnesota, is more human-like than ever.

Researchers at Cornell university are now creating medical simulation technology for animals, too, including these robo pets that give veterinary students hands-on learning experience.


Showcase to feature research across disciplines

Design Across Disciplines

How do university researchers take on society’s greatest and most complex challenges? To start, they team up with other departments across campus.

An upcoming event will help to connect University of Minnesota researchers from different fields of study as they prepare to solve complex issues that require both breadth and depth of knowledge. Discovery Across Disciplines, hosted by the Graduate School and the Office of the Vice President for Research, will showcase interdisciplinary research from more than 50 of the university’s centers and institutes. The groups will gather from 2 to 4 pm. on Oct. 16 on Coffman Memorial Union’s third floor to exhibit their work and meet with graduate students, postdoctoral scholars and faculty members interested in connecting with other researchers outside of their department.

The U’s centers and institutes give the university’s brightest minds a way to come together across multiple fields of study to take on the world’s most challenging problems, from creating a sustainable food supply to developing cures for infectious diseases. These collaborative settings provide researchers the foundation to build off of one another’s strengths and find new approaches to a problem, which can ultimately lead to new solutions.

Continue reading

Researcher alert: New and updated IRB forms

The Institutional Review Board has updated several existing forms and has launched two new forms: the Report Form and the Study Inactivation Request Form. The revisions and new forms were developed during a program review in anticipation of AAHRPP (Association for the Accreditation of Human Research Protection Programs) reaccreditation and incorporate feedback from users.

New and updated forms will be required starting Oct. 6, 2014. Until then, the IRB will accept either the new or the recently retired versions.

While the changes to the forms are generally small, they are significant, but will not likely contribute to administrative burden associated with completion. Provided below is a summary of the forms that have changed and the nature of those changes. Continue reading

Researching infectious disease with a worldwide scope

HIV testing

By James Neaton

The University of Minnesota is a leader in several areas of global health, from emerging infectious diseases to long-standing issues such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. A prime example of this leadership is the research carried out by the International Network for Strategic Initiatives in Global HIV Trials (INSIGHT), a network involving several hundred sites in 37 countries throughout the world who take part in clinical trials for the treatment of HIV. The leadership group and statistical and data management center for INSIGHT is located in the U of M’s Division of Biostatistics of the School of Public Health. INSIGHT is funded largely by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), though several governments around the world also contribute research funding.

Today, more than 35 million people are currently living with HIV/AIDS and more than 39 million have died of AIDS-related causes since the first cases were reported in 1981. While the disease exists all over the world, the majority of people living with HIV live in low-and middle-income countries; more than two-thirds (70 percent) live in sub-Saharan Africa. Only 12.9 million (37 percent) of people living with the virus have access to antiretroviral therapy (a treatment regimen that usually consists of three or more drugs that can effectively suppress the HIV virus in the blood). These sobering data illustrate the scale and scope of HIV, which remains one of the world’s largest global health crises.

Through INSIGHT, an interdisciplinary team of U of M researchers collaborate with hundreds of investigators around the world through coordinating centers in London (MRC Clinical Trials Unit), Copenhagen (University of Copenhagen), Sydney (Kirby Institute, University of New South Wales) and Washington D.C., (Veterans Affairs Medical Center and George Washington University). U of M researchers, together with investigators from these international coordinating centers and from hundreds of clinical sites around the world, have designed and completed the largest HIV treatment trials done to date. Continue reading

From Morris to Malaysia: Student research connects disciplines, cultures

Bamboo in Borneo

After her freshman year came to a close, Keyah Stone, a biochemistry major at the University of Minnesota, Morris, was eager to continue her study of biology. As a Native American, she also wanted to work with other indigenous peoples.

So when Stone heard about a summer 2014 UMM Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) trip to the island of Borneo in Malaysia that offered both of these opportunities, she was immediately drawn to it.

“I had never gone abroad before or done any type of research,” Stone said. “This was the perfect opportunity to experience something completely new.” Continue reading

Does Africa need a new Green Revolution?

Tanzanian farm

By Ronald Aminzade

“Green Revolution” is the label for concerted initiatives to increase agricultural production and prevent hunger and starvation in major regions of the world. Earlier efforts, largely credited to biologist Norman Borlaug (1914 – 2009), University of Minnesota alum and Nobel laureate, transformed agriculture in Mexico, India and the Philippines – by facilitating the use of new technologies and commercial seeds, fertilizers and pesticides to produce high-yield cereal grains.

In 2006, two of the world’s largest foundations, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, joined forces to launch the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. With the Gates Foundation alone contributing around one billion dollars by 2012, the stated goals were to reduce poverty by helping smallholder farmers, including women, gain greater access to markets, credit and productivity-enhancing technologies to generate higher yields of staple food crops. In collaboration with African governments, multinational corporations, research institutes and farmers’ organizations, the Gates Foundation is pushing market integration and the use of chemical fertilizers and commercial seeds (including hybrid and genetically modified seeds). Continue reading

Drilling expedition to pioneer research through deepest Antarctic ice

Antarctic Plateau

When it comes to polar research, the University of Minnesota is striving to reach new heights — or rather, new depths.

In June, construction began on a first-of-its-kind drilling platform that U researchers will use to penetrate almost 11,000 feet below the surface of the main polar ice cap in East Antarctica. The Rapid Access Ice Drill (RAID) system, funded by a $9 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs, will give researchers their first look at the point where the ice meets the bedrock below at this depth. The grant is the largest ever awarded to a project based on the U’s Duluth campus and could give researchers access to ice more than 1 million years old.

John Goodge, professor with the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Minnesota Duluth, is leading the project’s research team along with Jeff Severinghaus, geosciences professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. Continue reading