Building a culture of health across the U.S.

Children running in field with father

A new, national initiative based at the University of Minnesota will bring experts together from across disciplines to address complex health issues at the community level.

Earlier this fall, the U of M was selected as the national center for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Interdisciplinary Research Leaders program. As the program lead, the U of M will work to bring together a wide variety of research experts to conduct action-oriented public health studies in communities across the country, while also cultivating these experts’ roles as future leaders in interdisciplinary research. The innovative, two-year research projects in IRL aim to drive change in communities and advance policies that share a central goal — building a culture of health.

“A culture of health is about helping people live healthier, more vibrant lives now so they don’t need as much medical care down the road,” said Michael Oakes, Ph.D., professor of epidemiology and community health with the School of Public Health. “These projects make good use of translational, applied research to help create new social norms that benefit our society’s well-being, such as regular exercise, work-life balance and healthy social environments.” Continue reading

Citizen science evolves to engage new projects, participants

As a physicist and astronomer, Lucy Fortson, Ph.D., never imagined she would find herself involved in a study to analyze half a million ancient Greek writing fragments found on Egyptian papyri. Helping orchestrate an effort to code over a million pictures documenting animal behavior in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park wasn’t high among her expectations, either.

But now, delving into such wide-ranging projects is business-as-usual for Fortson, associate head of the University of Minnesota’s School of Physics and Astronomy. In her other role as the head of Zooniverse@UMN, the U’s citizen science initiative, Fortson helps researchers in fields ranging from anthropology to zoology connect their studies to volunteers who can contribute to data collection or analysis. So far, the Zooniverse project has led to over 100 peer-reviewed research articles.

At the U and beyond, citizen science continues to evolve to fit the new tools available to it, calling upon volunteers from across the world. NASA’s CosmoQuest project, for example, provides volunteers with a way to investigate high-resolution images taken by spacecraft for signs of impact craters on the surfaces of Mars, Mercury and the moon. Closer to home, there are projects like that of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which has been rallying residents for 20 years to help monitor the population of loons across the state. Continue reading

Colloquia embrace serendipity, spur new partnerships

When experts come together from across disciplines, organizations and sectors, it sets the stage for serendipity — where creative thought leads to new and often unexpected solutions to large challenges.

The University of Minnesota’s Convergence Colloquia is a series of multidisciplinary gatherings that encourage serendipitous approaches to improving our world. These think tanks, hosted by the Office of the Vice President for Research, bring U researchers together with private, public and nonprofit stakeholders to identify opportunities to focus on critical societal issues. The colloquia advance cutting-edge research to develop innovative solutions and build long-term partnerships.

“Colloquia events support an environment where a wide range of experts can engage in rich, thoughtful discussions about pressing issues in our communities,” said Carissa Slotterback, the U’s director of Research Engagement. “The resulting collaborations between researchers at the U and professionals in the community are an important first step toward addressing some of the greatest challenges facing our society.” Continue reading

Serendipity sparks new ideas to meet needs of an aging population

Colloquium event photo - Aging

Minnesota’s population is aging. According to the Minnesota State Demographic Center, the number of adults age 65 or older is anticipated to double between 2010 and 2030. As this portion of the population grows larger, Minnesota will have to prepare for its growing needs, from transportation to nursing homes.

In anticipation of these upcoming challenges, University of Minnesota researchers gathered with experts from industry, community groups and nonprofits Tuesday to explore “Big Ideas and Compelling Issues in Aging,” the second event in the University of Minnesota’s Convergence Colloquia series. Over 80 experts from across disciplines and sectors came together to identify some of the most pressing issues related to aging and discover opportunities for new partnerships and programs that can meet those needs.

“Bringing people of different expertise and backgrounds together creates fertile ground for the type of serendipitous thinking that leads to innovation,” said Brian Herman, Ph.D., the U’s vice president for research. “By combining university research expertise with the practical knowledge of industry, nonprofits and community groups, we can create partnerships that have the ingenuity and capacity needed to make a difference.” Continue reading

Serendipity grants target emerging societal issues

Whole world in a laptop

In February, experts, practitioners and community leaders from across Minnesota came together to discuss how their collective knowledge and resources could create more intelligent, efficient and livable communities.

The event, Smart Cities and Infrastructure, was the first of the University of Minnesota’s Convergence Colloquia, which are designed to bring together U researchers and private, public and nonprofit stakeholders to discuss emerging issues in society. These transdisciplinary collaborations aim to engineer the type of serendipity that can only occur when experts from different fields work together to solve a common problem. The colloquia advance cutting-edge research, develop innovative solutions and build long-term partnerships that improve our world.

Throughout the Smart Cities and Infrastructure event, participants worked to identify priorities in research and opportunities for collaboration that could improve the communities in which we live. See the Smart Cities and Infrastructure report for more about the event’s outcomes and next steps. Continue reading

Convergence Colloquia: Cultivating serendipity for community action

Connection nodes

By Carissa Slotterback

Chance encounters and accidental inspirations have been responsible for many of the world’s greatest discoveries, from penicillin to the Post-it note. Throughout history, our greatest thinkers have advanced scientific understanding and improved our world as a result of being in the right place, at the right time and with the right combination of knowledge and inspiration.

Many researchers, including myself, tell stories of how casual meetings with colleagues have led to some of their most fruitful and long-lasting collaborations. The conversations, learning and opportunity to engage outside of one’s own comfort zone can lead to creativity and innovation.

Of course, there is no magic formula for serendipity, which by definition is unexpected. Yet forward-thinking organizations like Google, Facebook and AT&T are well known for their attempts to create work environments conducive to networking and collaboration in the hopes of generating new ideas and innovation.

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

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

Transdisciplinary awards fund projects targeting grand challenges

Global market

When great minds from different fields come together in one place, they find new and unexpected ways to solve large problems.

This concept, setting the stage for serendipity, sits at the heart of the MnDRIVE Transdisciplinary Research Program, a set of nearly $6 million in awards recently announced by the University of Minnesota’s Office of the Vice President for Research. MnDRIVE (Minnesota’s Discovery, Research and InnoVation Economy) is an $18 million annual investment  by the state of Minnesota aiming to align research and industry strengths to solve grand challenges in four key areas: robotics, sensors and advanced manufacturing; global food ventures; advancing industry, conserving our environment; and discoveries and treatments for brain conditions. The transdisciplinary award supports projects that cover at least three of these four areas and bring together faculty and resources from multiple disciplines.

“This award creates opportunities for our researchers to collaborate in exciting new ways and work beyond the bounds of their departments,” said Dr. Brian Herman, the U’s vice president for research. “Together, they will seek solutions to the greatest societal challenges of our time.” Continue reading

Seeking a culture of serendipity

Searching together

Many of the world’s greatest discoveries appear to be matters of luck. Columbus set out for the Orient, only to find a land and peoples previously unknown to Europeans. Percy Spencer developed the idea for the microwave oven after microwaves from a radar set melted a candy bar he was carrying. Physiologist Robert Richet developed the theory for the study of allergies after observing the effects of sea anemone poison on dogs. Newton developed the theory of gravity as he pondered childhood observations of fruit dropping from trees in his mother’s garden.

Science abounds with such stories. But were these events luck? Louis Pasteur said “Chance favors only the prepared mind.” In reality, Columbus had a plan, funding and organizational talent. Spencer was working in a corporation that nurtured new product ideas. Richet had prepared his mind through countless experiments. Newton was studying forces when he developed the theory of gravity.

Most discoveries are not simple tosses of dice. Curiosity and preparation readied the individuals to convert luck to invention. English Novelist Horace Walpole coined the term serendipity some 160 years ago to describe this type of luck which results from the combination of good fortune and wisdom. Mental preparation, funding, organizational environment, the right colleagues—these are all ingredients of serendipity. Serendipitous discoveries are the outcomes of intellectual curiosity and structured investigation. Continue reading

Entirely unexpected

Almost everything that has been useful to science, and the science that’s applicable to medicine, came entirely unexpected. The definition of innovation and discovery is that you don’t know what’s going to happen. — Dr. Jakub Tolar, pediatric transplant specialist, director, Stem Cell Institute