Faculty Fusion: Reshaping the Academy
“Nationally there has been a greater awareness that you need people from many disciplines to solve the grand challenges of society. You’re not going to find the answers in any one discipline.”
— Laura Severin
By David Hunt | PDF Version
Patients undergoing treatment for asthma and other chronic lung diseases often have to breathe into a handheld device to measure how well their lungs are working. But even though most people with asthma own a peak flow meter, only about one-third of them use it.
That fraction could increase dramatically thanks to new technology developed in the Product Innovation Lab at NC State University.
The groundbreaking device — a low-cost, handheld spirometer — can send the results of self-administered lung function tests to a smartphone that uploads them to a remote server for a doctor to view. By reducing the cost and inconvenience of testing, the product, called VitalFlo, could improve the management of asthma, a disease that affects more than 16 million Americans and costs the U.S. economy $64 billion a year.
The brainpower behind the project came from graduate students in three disciplines — engineering, industrial design and business — mentored by faculty members at the forefront of research and scholarship in those fields.
Ordinarily you wouldn’t find students with such widely varying interests working together in a classroom or lab. But these are not ordinary times in higher education.
“Nationally there has been a greater awareness that you need people from many disciplines to solve the grand challenges of society,” says Laura Severin. “You’re not going to find the answers in any one discipline.”
Severin, an English professor who has served as a special assistant to the provost for academic planning, was a key player in a pioneering initiative to change the way faculty members educate, collaborate and innovate on the 2,000-acre campus.
The Chancellor’s Faculty Excellence Program was launched in response to an ambitious strategic plan adopted by the university in 2011. Since then the program has spurred the creation of 20 interdisciplinary faculty clusters in areas ranging from regenerative medicine to data science to the digital transformation of education.
The clusters, led by some of NC State’s most experienced researchers, have recruited and hired 41 new faculty members, including established and emerging leaders in their fields — all with a strong commitment to interdisciplinary collaboration.
In fact, Severin says, the chance to work in a faculty cluster with colleagues from other disciplines was “an exciting intellectual draw” for the new hires.
It’s also been exciting for officials in the provost’s office, who are busy measuring the program’s success against a variety of benchmarks. One important metric, the amount of research funding generated per faculty member, paints a dramatic picture. On average last year, faculty hired through the cluster program brought in more than twice the research dollars of other research faculty.
That’s particularly good news considering that the program requires a significant investment of dollars by the university — and not just for salaries.
Duane Larick, a food scientist who serves as NC State’s senior vice provost for academic strategy and resource management, says the university is updating laboratories, buying new equipment and enhancing existing facilities across campus to support the new faculty clusters.
“We don’t have a lot of underutilized space, especially high-quality underutilized space,” he says. “But the reality is, if we’re going to grow the faculty, we’re going to have to invest in our facilities.”
Of course, investing in faculty and facilities takes dollars, and those are in short supply in public higher education. Although research funding is on the upswing overall at NC State — new sponsored awards reached a record $300 million in 2014 — state appropriations have had a downward slide.
That trend is mirrored across the country. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research and policy institute based in Washington, D.C., reports that state spending for higher education is down an average of 23 percent from pre-recession levels.
But Larick and other top NC State administrators have no doubts about the value of the faculty cluster program. “It’s worth every penny,” Larick says.
His confidence in the program isn’t just based on monetary returns. Larick says the program is paying dividends in multiple ways: stimulating the creation of new academic programs at the master’s and doctoral levels, attracting top graduate students from around the world, generating partnerships with government and industry, and fostering a spirit of collaboration across the university’s 10 colleges.
“The campus culture is changing,” he says. “And it’s changing dramatically.”
Innovation By Design
To some extent, faculty members have always worked in interdisciplinary clusters — or at least some faculty members have. Industrial design professor Haig Khachatoorian recalls coming to an informal agreement with colleagues in engineering and management 18 years ago to establish the Product Innovation Lab, a hands-on collaborative course that has spawned innovations such as a smart meter for the power industry, a video conferencing system to deliver physical therapy to rural patients and the VitalFlo asthma monitoring device.
The course is effective because it immerses students in different ways of thinking and learning, and it helps them tackle complex problems as a team. Over the semester, students run through the difficult tasks involved in bringing an idea to market, including developing a business plan, conducting a technical analysis, designing a concept and producing prototypes.
“They confront all the gnarly issues of what it means to work with other people — and to work with other people who’ve been educated in different ways than you have,” Khachatoorian says.
Over the past decade the course has confronted many of the challenges — and reaped many of the rewards — inherent in interdisciplinary clusters. Faculty members grounded in one discipline, with its particular vocabulary, tools and methodology, have gained new perspectives by working closely with faculty and students in other disciplines.
“It’s been fun and exciting to push at the edges of innovation,” Khachatoorian says. “Our collaborations have brought us a great deal of delight, especially when we see our student teams coming up with amazing ideas to solve complex problems in novel ways.”
When the university announced it was looking for ideas for new interdisciplinary clusters, Khachatoorian and colleagues in management and engineering jumped at the chance to build on their collaboration. They proposed an innovation and design cluster based on lessons learned from a decade of working together.
It was an easy sell, especially because their work has long been recognized as a national model for experiential education. From modest beginnings, the Product Innovation Lab has become one of NC State’s most popular graduate courses, engaging more than 100 students working in 13 teams last semester. In 2010, Forbes named the lab one of the 10 most innovative business courses in the nation.
When NC State announced the launch of the first 12 faculty clusters three years ago, the innovation and design cluster was one of those that got the green light, with Khachatoorian and marketing professor Jonathan Bohlmann as the coordinators. Both professors bring decades of experience in higher education, as well as strengths in the cluster’s core disciplines.
Khachatoorian has advanced degrees in industrial design and environmental psychology. He also has studied around the world, from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn to the Academy of Fine Arts in Poland to the University of Surrey in England. In 1985 he received a prestigious Loeb Fellowship from the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University.
In addition, he has extensive experience in the private sector as a freelance designer and consultant. His research has been supported by grants from major corporations such as Philips, Ford, Caterpillar, John Deere, Daimler Chrysler, GlaxoWellcome, Michelin and IBM.
Bohlmann has extensive experience in business management and engineering. He earned undergraduate and master’s degrees in aeronautics at Purdue University and then worked as a senior engineer at General Dynamics, where he designed advanced aircraft structures. He went on to earn an MBA at Texas Christian University and a Ph.D. in marketing with a minor in microeconomics from MIT’s Sloan School of Management.
Bohlmann says students in the Product Innovation Lab quickly learn to appreciate the close interplay of marketing and design when attempting a product innovation.
“Part of the art of innovation is problem definition and having a very comprehensive and complete understanding of market opportunities and unmet customer needs and the customer experience,” he explains. “As designers often say, ‘to design the thing right, you have to design the right thing.’”
Challenges and Choices
The same holds true of designing a new academic program. After their faculty cluster proposal was approved, Bohlmann and Khachatoorian faced the challenge of setting up a program that operates outside the university’s traditional organizational structure. They quickly identified two goals: recruit new faculty members with a passion for interdisciplinary teamwork, and create new academic courses that help students break free of conventional thinking.
In 2013 they hired Christian Hölljes, an award-winning inventor, designer and serial entrepreneur who served on the original QuickTime team at Apple Computer in the 1980s before leading product development efforts at several other Silicon Valley firms. Hölljes, who studied zoology, mechanical engineering and fine art at Duke University, earned a master’s in industrial design at NC State in 1984.
The next year they hired Rosanna Garcia, an expert on agent-based modeling, a simulation technique that helps businesses understand how consumers make decisions in complex market situations. Like Hölljes, she has a multidisciplinary background, holding undergraduate degrees in both chemical engineering and economics and a doctorate in marketing.
The new faculty members are putting their diverse backgrounds to work. Hölljes is rolling out a new design course called Make/Believe, in which students will develop a hypothetical company and go through the necessary steps required in order to launch it. Garcia is working on a curriculum for a program to help students develop and launch technologies in the area of environmental sustainability.
But setting up faculty clusters can raise new and vexing problems — especially for university administrators. In fact, hiring faculty clusters “is so tricky and so time intensive that many of the universities that have tried it haven’t succeeded,” says Severin.
Traditionally, faculty members are hired by academic departments to work in specific disciplines, such as English or biology. While many universities are excited about the prospect of hiring new faculty in clusters that cross disciplines, they shouldn’t neglect the needs of the traditional departments, she adds. “There has to be a careful balance between building your clusters and supporting your departments.”
NC State adopted an approach that turned the traditional hiring process on its head. Instead of hiring people at the department level and then seeing how those new faculty members could fit into university centers or institutes — the units on campus that have traditionally spearheaded cross-disciplinary efforts — the university first identified gaps in broad research areas and then assessed how potential new hires could fit in.
It’s also noteworthy that NC State purposely turned to its faculty, rather than its administrators, to identify the unmet research needs. Faculty cluster areas weren’t created in a boardroom and delivered in a top-down approach; they were selected from among dozens of proposals submitted by teams of faculty members.
“It is key that the faculty propose the areas where we focus our clusters,” Severin says. “We need faculty to guide the process because this effort takes a lot of passion and commitment. We need people who are excited about their research and driven to achieve their goals. It has to come from them.”
Despite the university’s focus on its new clusters, most faculty members still work outside the clusters, and the administration isn’t neglecting them. When the university launched the cluster program, it invested in existing faculty at the department level through two new grant programs. The Chancellor’s Innovation Fund provides grants to help commercialize research discoveries, and the University Faculty Scholars program supports high-performing tenured and tenure-track faculty with annual cash awards for five years.
The university also updated the policy for tenure, the system of faculty promotion traditionally granted within individual departments. Now faculty members in clusters can be evaluated either by voting faculty in their home department — the traditional method — or by an interdisciplinary review committee.
Moving to a New Level
Entomologist Fred Gould is used to working with the challenges of interdisciplinary collaboration. In 2008, he and a team of NC State faculty applied to the National Science Foundation for a grant to set up an Integrated Graduate Research and Training program to train graduate students across disciplines in the emerging field of genetic pest management.
“In the past we thought we were interdisciplinary if we had an entomologist and a geneticist working together,” he says.
In the training program, Gould took interdisciplinary collaboration to a new level, bringing together researchers in communication, rhetoric, public administration and economics as well as biomathematics, molecular biology and, of course, entomology and genetics.
“The first time we submitted the application to the NSF, one of our co-principal investigators was in the English department,” he recalls. “That was a little too far out for them.”
The project received funding on the third try.
Gould found that NC State’s sprawling campus, where faculty work in buildings organized by colleges, didn’t exactly support a team working across so many disciplines.
“I had never been in a humanities or social science building,” he says. “People would laugh at me because I’d end up sitting in hallways outside my colleagues’ offices with my laptop and briefcase.”
Despite the inconveniences, the NSF-funded training program got off to a strong start, sending a group of graduate students and faculty to Peru to study a species of mosquito on the Amazon River that transmits dengue fever. Their findings would form the basis for a white paper that would later be published as a chapter in the book Genetic Control of Malaria and Dengue by Virginia Tech entomologist Zach Adelman.
Today, the training program has 17 graduate students taking courses in genetic pest management, emerging technologies and society, and advanced modeling techniques for understanding human behavior as well as the behavior of targeted pests.
Like Khachatoorian in industrial design, Gould was excited by the opportunity to turn his highly collaborative program into a faculty cluster. He also realized that genetic pest management was just one aspect of a larger challenge confronting researchers: how to understand the impacts of transgenic organisms on ecosystems and societies.
It was one thing for a researcher to use genetic engineering to disrupt the reproductive cycle of mosquitos near the Amazon River. It was another thing to decide how and when to develop genetically engineered organisms that might end up in Americans’ breakfast cereals and salads.
That’s why Gould and a group of colleagues made the case for a new faculty cluster in the field of genetic engineering and society. With the approval of the cluster in 2012, Gould pulled together an interdisciplinary hiring committee made up of faculty in public and international affairs, public policy, agriculture and resource economics, communication, history and biological sciences to begin recruiting key faculty. He also spearheaded the creation of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center to focus the cluster’s efforts in research, teaching and outreach.
In 2013 Gould recruited Jennifer Kuzma, one of the nation’s leading experts on science and technology policy, and the author of more than 90 academic articles, book chapters and policy reports on governance and emerging technologies. Kuzma, then a professor of public affairs at the University of Minnesota, wasn’t looking to make a career change. But when Gould called to explain his plans for the new faculty cluster and center, Kuzma was immediately interested.
“The program matched my research perfectly,” she says. “As an interdisciplinary person, it’s seldom that you find a perfect fit.”
The harmony between the goals of the cluster and Kuzma’s work wasn’t as random as it seemed. Gould had been following Kuzma’s research since he met her at a National Academy of Sciences meeting more than a decade ago.
“We needed someone in social sciences who could move us forward, someone who had a track record,” Gould explains. “Jennifer is that key person. Her work in science and technology policy is well known — she’s incredibly impressive — and she has a Ph.D. in biochemistry.”
How does a biochemist with a patent on the bacterial production of isoprene end up as a distinguished professor in social sciences at a major research university?
“I was not happy working in a lab,” she says. “I was always interested in bigger societal issues.”
That interest took her to Washington, D.C., where she analyzed policy issues at the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She also served as a study director for several reports on biotechnology and bioterrorism for the National Academy of Sciences.
“That’s where the rubber hits the road, where natural science meets the policymaker,” she says. “I got a real sense of where science fits into policy and how they interact.”
That experience has already paid dividends in her work at NC State, where Kuzma helped organize a conference in March encouraging a dialogue between U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and stakeholders across the nation who have concerns about the impact of genetically engineered crops.
“Our vision is to become the place to go to for balanced analysis and a place for open and honest communication,” she says. “We’re not going to solve all the issues, but we can help different groups and different people better understand each other and look at the issues more comprehensively and more accurately.”
In addition to Kuzma, the cluster recruited two other faculty members: Jason Delborne, an expert in environmental science, policy and management, formerly at Colorado School of Mines; and economist Zach Brown, whose research into the economics of malaria-control programs in Africa won the 2009 Peccei Prize from the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis in Vienna.
Working It Out
While every faculty cluster at NC State is a unique combination of people, skills and resources, they share a common goal: putting their heads together to solve some of society’s biggest challenges.
For example, the global food security cluster is focused on combating emerging infectious plant diseases. The global water, sanitation and hygiene cluster works to provide sustainable water and sanitation in the developing world. The carbon electronics cluster is pursuing technology advances to provide revolutionary computing approaches, renewable power sources, advanced energy storage and novel device capabilities.
If there were only one institutional obstacle standing in the way of each of these efforts, faculty members and administrators might breathe a little easier. Knocking down the big barriers to interdisciplinary teamwork is a cause nearly everyone in higher education supports, from deans and department heads to budget analysts and accountants.
However, there are a thousand small bumps in the road along the way to implementing a fundamental shift in the way a university functions. That’s hardly a surprise in an organization whose structure hasn’t changed that much since the Middle Ages.
“There are issues that we have to overcome on a weekly basis,” Kuzma says, noting that she wasn’t authorized to spend funds in the Genetic Engineering and Society Center for several months after she was named co-director because the center’s budget was not allocated to her department.
The fact that issues like this get worked out at all is testament to the efforts of the provost’s office to keep the cluster program on track. And it helps that the administrators initially charged with implementing the program are both low-key professionals who have worked at the university for 30 years, giving them a keen understanding of the people and tools available to fix almost any problem.
Larick, the vice provost for academic strategy and resource management, works behind the scenes to smooth out the rough spots in policies and procedures. As the provost’s special assistant, Severin was an ambassador for the program, making sure the needs of departments and clusters were met.
In the end, the faculty clusters will only succeed if the benefits are shared across campus.
“It’s time intensive,” Larick says. “It’s the piece that most people don’t understand: how important it is to have someone in that role facilitating the changing dynamics between the traditional departments and the new interdisciplinary clusters.”
As part of that effort, the Provost’s Office has sponsored events to introduce newly hired faculty members to their colleagues, and it’s launched an annual research symposium on campus to showcase the latest advances coming out of the clusters. As a result, some clusters have even forged partnerships with other clusters at NC State, creating what can only be described as super clusters.
Nothing could please Larick more. He notes with pride a recent collaboration between the environmental health science cluster and the data-driven science cluster. In an era when federal funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation are encouraging cross-disciplinary approaches to research, collaborations like this give NC State a competitive advantage in grant proposals.
Larick calls the research done by the faculty clusters “work that matters.” So, too, is the work of creating the clusters and keeping them going.
“When a cluster has finished hiring all its faculty members, that isn’t the end of the process,” he says. “That’s just the beginning.”