Working against the margins

Where is the Work

By George Hoagland

Today’s humanities professor isn’t the tweed-patched, undersocialized, clumsy technophobe we imagined scurrying around campus. Nor is she the zany free-spirited instructor who came later; you know, the teacher who just wants her class to feel the subject matter, to experience it on some kind of spiritual level.

Instead, today’s humanities professor networks in several disciplines (many of which fall outside traditional disciplinary boundaries), uses social media platforms as teaching and research tools, writes successful grants for a variety of projects, collaborates with colleagues and industry professionals, and runs apps like nobody’s business. On top of all that, today’s humanities professor doesn’t look like the stereotype either (check out the Twitter hashtag #ILookLikeAProfessor started by historian Sara Pritchard and literary scholar Adeline Koh).

The ivory tower—that image of an isolated, bucolic garden of privilege—no longer represents contemporary university life. Faculty in all disciplines shoulder increasing burdens of dollar-driven scholarship, often measured in the creation of career-ready graduates.

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Research leads to record 16 startups in FY15

Bright Ideas

Technology commercialization transforms the latest breakthroughs into everyday solutions that improve our health, environment and quality of life.

At the University of Minnesota, researchers are developing inventions that aim to tackle some of society’s greatest challenges. In fiscal 2015, the Venture Center at the U’s Office for Technology Commercialization formed a record 16 startup companies around these inventions, topping the previous record of 15 companies in 2014 and bringing the total number of startups launched to 84 since the Venture Center formed in 2006.

“It is exciting to see university research leave the lab and be applied on a larger scale to solve societal problems,” said Brian Herman, Ph.D., the U’s vice president for research. “By bringing these ideas to market, the U is helping to spur entrepreneurial activity and advance Minnesota’s economy, strengthening its competitiveness in key industries and creating the basis for new ones.” Continue reading

Watson kicks off cognitive computing research

Power of Thought

The recent avian flu outbreak proved devastating to Minnesota. The virus killed more than 9 million of the state’s turkeys and chickens and wiped out the flocks of 108 poultry farms, according to a Minnesota Public Radio report.

This fall, University of Minnesota students with expertise in computer science and food security will explore new ways to curb the effects of avian flu outbreaks using a cutting-edge cognitive computing system. IBM’s Watson, a system that mimics how the human brain works by understanding naturally written language and learning from what it reads to discover new patterns and connections, serves as the basis for a special topics course. The course, “Explore Watson,” is the result of a partnership between the U of M and IBM to discover research and business applications for cognitive computing.

“Cognitive computing can piece together data in ways researchers may not expect, finding connections they may not otherwise identify,” said Claudia Neuhauser, Ph.D., lead instructor of the course and director of the U’s Informatics Institute. “Using a tool like Watson can help us not just in answering our research questions, but in figuring out which questions we should be asking.” Continue reading

MN-REACH readies new med-tech, pharma for market

Molecular Structure

A new University of Minnesota program is helping ensure the most promising new medical technologies and pharmaceuticals are ready to be brought to market.

The U’s MN-REACH program provides university-wide commercial expertise and resources to help develop and commercialize diagnostics, therapeutics, preventive medicine and medical devices. The program, formed after the National Institutes of Health named the U one of three Research Evaluation and Commercialization Hub (REACH) sites in March, funds 10-20 research projects a year. It is supported by a $3 million NIH grant and $3 million in matching U of M funds.

MN-REACH establishes new industry partnerships, strengthens existing partnerships and provides entrepreneurial education to accelerate the pace at which innovations reach the market. Through workshops and industry mentors, the program aims to coach faculty in subjects like competition, venture capital and market assessment. The program also identifies and addresses barriers in the academic environment that may hinder commercialization. Continue reading

Collaborations cross disciplines to tackle big challenges

MnDRIVE collage

What do cleaning the state’s waterways, curbing livestock disease and treating diabetes have in common?

These are a few of the dozen projects that have brought University of Minnesota researchers together to work beyond the limits of their academic fields to address complex societal challenges. The U’s MnDRIVE Transdisciplinary Research Program provided nearly $6 million for the 12 research projects, which ranged from an effort to use smart systems to reduce sulfate concentrations in water to designing wearable technology that treats neurological disorders. Each project integrated at least three of the four key MnDRIVE research areas: discoveries and treatments for brain conditions; robotics, sensors and advanced manufacturing; advancing industry, conserving our environment; and global food ventures.

“Transdisciplinary projects inspire researchers to think creatively about complex problems,” said Brian Herman, Ph.D., the U’s vice president for research. “These projects bring together some of the university’s greatest minds, allowing experts from vastly different fields to collaborate together and with community and industry partners to find new and often unexpected approaches to challenges in our society.” Continue reading

How lions became social

Lake Pride - Photo By Craig Packer

Photo credit: Craig Packer

Cats have a well-deserved reputation for independence. From tabbies to tigers, they hold individual territories. But lions are a glaring exception.

Lions’ habit of living socially in prides has long been viewed as an adaptation to life on the African savanna, where grass dominates the landscape and resources like game, water and shade trees tend to be found in clumps.

Now, work led by Anna Mosser, a teaching assistant professor in the College of Biological Sciences, indicates that it was a combination of the savanna landscape and certain behaviors that drove the evolution of lions’ social living. The work is published in Behavioral Ecology.

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Center to advance sensory research across disciplines

Making a hearing test

As older adults continue to make up a larger portion of Minnesota’s population, sensory loss related to aging — which includes problems with unsteady balance, poor vision and hearing loss — is becoming a greater challenge. Sensory deficiencies can cut people off from their social and physical environments and limit their quality of life.

A coordinated research effort to help older adults retain their sensory capabilities and age healthily is one focus of the University of Minnesota’s new Center for Applied and Translational Sensory Science. CATSS, which opened earlier this month, will bring together world-leading experts in the sensory sciences to tackle the problems faced by millions with sensory deficits and will translate this cutting-edge research into devices and therapies that can improve quality of life for those affected. The transdisciplinary center will bring together 50 faculty from across five U of M colleges, including biomedical engineers, speech and language experts, vision surgeons, movement researchers, and ear, nose and throat doctors.

The center and will also serve as a hub for partnership with industry and the community, and will conduct outreach to inform the public about state-of-the-art technology and rehabilitation options for those with sensory deficiencies. Continue reading

MSI Beta experiments with new technologies

binary background

A key tenant of design thinking is rapid prototyping — the idea that testing a new idea early and often in an environment that supports and learns from failure is crucial to driving innovation forward.

Now, the University of Minnesota is bringing that same concept to high-performance computing. As part of its goal of advancing research, the U’s Minnesota Supercomputing Institute launched a new program July 1 that aims to give researchers and staff a chance to try a variety of new and experimental computing technologies, including visualization, data mining and big data systems. The program, called MSI Beta, allows MSI to investigate technologies in an environment that embraces failure as part of the discovery process and supports the development of novel applications that have the potential to accelerate research at the U.

“Universities are known for finding new ways to work with cutting-edge technology,” said Claudia Neuhauser, Ph.D., interim director of MSI. “It is important for the U of M to have exploratory, low-stakes environments like MSI Beta to let us try, fail and learn from the experiment. This program will ultimately outfit MSI with more tools and knowledge to better help university researchers push the boundaries in their fields.” Continue reading

U alumni channel entrepreneurship experience into startup

empty to full

Before a small startup team overshot its Kickstarter goal by almost $600,000 and garnered widespread interest in their smart water bottle technology, they were University of Minnesota students honing their knack for entrepreneurship through mentorship opportunities and experiential learning.

Hidrate Inc., a Minneapolis-based startup led by CEO Nadya Nguyen, is now working toward releasing a high-tech water bottle that tracks the amount of water its users drink during the day and reminds them when it’s time to drink more. Nguyen and her team of fellow U of M alumni — Alexandra Feeken, Alexander Hambrock, Coleman Iverson and Daniel Worku — plan to launch their product at the end of the year. They have already generated buzz in publications like Wired, Fast Company and Business Insider and spurred more than 8,000 Kickstarter pledges. But in many ways, their entrepreneurial spirit began before Hidrate, during their undergraduate years at the U.

“We learned to get to the core of what the customer wants and understand how they find out about products,” Nguyen said. Continue reading

U among leaders in federally named med-tech partnership

Medical Equipment

Minnesota has a long history of leadership in the medical device world. In 2013, the state ranked first nationwide in medical patents per capita and second in medical device manufacturing employment, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Commerce recognized that leadership by naming Minnesota’s medical technology sector one of the nation’s 12 Manufacturing Communities, a designation intended to support best practices and economic development strategies through access to federal aid. The University of Minnesota is among the leadership team for a coalition formed around this designation called the Minnesota Medical Manufacturing Partnership. The MMMP includes nonprofits, economic development groups, higher education institutions and state government organizations, all of which were convened by the economic development group Greater MSP.

“The university’s long history of expertise in developing new medical technology makes it a natural fit for this partnership,” said Maura Donovan, executive director of the U’s Office of University Economic Development. “Overall, this effort is a great example of how Minnesota can identify its key industry sectors and leverage them in creative new ways to spur economic development across the state.” Continue reading

Precision farming targets major threat to soybean crops

Drone at sunset

Over the last 15 years, farmers across the U.S. have faced a daunting challenge. The soybean aphid, an invasive species first reported in the U.S. in 2000, has flourished on farms. These tiny yellow insects can destroy up to 40 percent of a soybean field when left unchecked. This is bad news for Minnesota, where soybeans are the top export crop and farmers produce 3 billion bushels of beans a year, according to the Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council.

A team of University of Minnesota researchers is working to give farmers better tools and techniques to protect their crops from pests like the soybean aphid. Using high-tech robotics and sensors and computer modeling software, the team aims to develop faster and more efficient methods of monitoring crops that help farmers make informed decisions on exactly when and where to apply pesticides. The project is part of the state-funded MnDRIVE Transdisciplinary Research Program, where researchers from different departments work beyond the limits of their disciplines to address complex challenges.

Demoz Gebre-Egziabher, Ph.D., lead principal investigator on the project and associate professor of aerospace engineering and mechanics with the U’s College of Science and Engineering, said greater precision when spraying for pests is crucial for farmers. Applying pesticide too soon could end up killing the aphids’ natural predators, which then allows the aphids to grow out of control. Waiting too long, on the other hand, lets the aphids reproduce freely and take over the crop.

“Optimizing pesticide application is a complex science,” Gebre-Egziabher said. “We’re developing a cost-effective way for farmers to collect data from the field, process it and come up with an action plan for how to curb their crop loss without spending too much on treatments.”

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U invests $4 million in research infrastructure

Gold Schematic

The University of Minnesota’s Office of the Vice President for Research has announced the recipients of its 2015 Research Infrastructure Investment Program, which helps maintain the robust, state-of-the art equipment key to propelling research and innovation.

The awards, which totaled over $2 million from OVPR and were matched one-to-one by funds from the supporting colleges or centers, are a one-time investment in university research infrastructure designed to ensure crucial research facilities and support services on all campuses are viable and up-to-date for cutting-edge research. The program, which impacts researchers in at least five colleges and 12 centers and institutes, supports transdisciplinary research and encourages collaboration across the U’s colleges and campuses.

Thirteen proposals were chosen for funding, ranging from a new 3D bioprinting facility that uses living tissue to create transplantable organs to an expansion of the Multisensory Perception Laboratory, where researchers can measure audio-visual perception in a variety of simulated environments.

Visit Research Advancement to learn more about the projects selected.