Taking the University up another notch

Author: John Monczunski

Notre Dame has long stated its ambition to become a pre-eminent research university while remaining committed to undergraduate education and its Catholic character. In an unprecedented move this spring, the University dramatically backed up that rhetoric, doling out an initial $40 million in internal funds to foster the kind of high-impact research that could make the rest of academia take notice.

The initiative began over a year ago when the University’s Strategic Academic Planning Committee (SAPC) of 17 professors and administrators came up with a bright idea in search of bright ideas, sending out a University-wide call for proposals to “advance the excellence and visibility of Notre Dame’s research enterprise.” With the $40 million as incentive, the call yielded 72 proposals coming from every college and school. These were winnowed down, with five projects ultimately dividing the pot.

Provost Thomas Burish says the faculty’s reaction to the initiative so far exceeded the committee’s expectations that an additional $80 million has been earmarked for two more proposal rounds, one later this year and another next year.

The process has even had a positive effect on projects that were not funded, Burish says. He points to SAPC-inspired discussions among the faculty that have fostered new collaborations. Also, “losing” groups have received feedback for the next round of SAPC competition. Some have been given assistance in seeking outside funding.

The new Notre Dame Integrated Imaging Facility (NDIIF) is both typical and outside the mold of the lucky five funded projects. Unlike the others, it is not a research investigation in its own right but rather will service and elevate other endeavors.

The idea grew out of discussions that Bradley Smith, the Emil T. Hofman professor of chemistry and biochemistry, had last summer with a dozen colleagues in chemistry, biology and engineering. The scientists and engineers, who work on everything from bacterial infections to next-generation electronics, realized that they have a common need for the best possible images of the objects of their study. Since state-of-the-art imaging devices are extraordinarily expensive, the group understood that an equipment collective would allow them all to raise the bar on their work.

“This is a particularly smart strategy at a place such as Notre Dame, because it sets the stage for a variety of synergies and allows us to be more ambitious in our research targets,” says Smith, NDIIF’s founding director. “With improved infrastructure we can think more in terms of high-risk, high-reward projects, and this is really crucial as the University takes its next step up.”

The NDIIF will house seven instruments at three campus locations, including engineering’s new Stinson-Remick Hall, now under construction. With price tags ranging from $300,000 to $1.8 million, the equipment includes everything from scanning electron microscopes that can see atoms and molecules to fluorescence microscopes that allow researchers to view biological processes in living animals.

As important as the hardware may be, Smith believes the provision for monthly NDIIF user meetings may be just as valuable because of their potential to transform the University’s research culture.

Time to work together
That culture, with just a few exceptions, has been single-discipline oriented, with little mixing beyond departments, let alone colleges. Increasingly, federal agencies and other funding institutions are emphasizing multi-disciplinary projects, Smith observes. As a result, internal mechanisms like NDIIF that foster collaboration have gained importance.

The four other funded proposals are similarly interdisciplinary. For instance, Professor Paul Bohn is leading a team of 22 biologists, chemists and electrical engineers in a project aimed at developing incredibly tiny nanotech devices for use in medical diagnostics and environmental monitoring. One of the goals of Bohn’s group is to re-order conventional sample analysis, in effect bringing miniature labs to the sample for quicker, cheaper and more accurate monitoring.

The project on Genomics, Disease Ecology and Global Health, led by biology professors Frank Collins and Jeff Schorey, will broaden the work of Notre Dame’s Eck Family Center for Global Health and Infectious Diseases. In addition to enhancing its investigation of the genes of pathogens and organisms that spread disease, the project also will expand the University’s applied research in the area of developing drugs or diagnostic tests for infectious diseases.

The Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Studies will be an interdisciplinary think tank. It will be a forum for up to 20 leading scholars and five graduate students who will spend anywhere from two weeks to a year at Notre Dame exploring questions of value as they relate to religion and the modern world through seminars, workshops and their own research endeavors.

Finally, NDNano—The Notre Dame Nanoelectronics Research Initiative—will essentially be Notre Dame’s component of the new Midwest Institute for Nanoelectronics Discovery (MIND). It will bring together the engineers developing the next-generation computer chip with scholars from the Reilly Center for Science, Technology and Values interested in its societal impact and with business faculty whose expertise may shape its entrepreneurial development.