Researchers Cross Boundaries to Address Real-World Problems


Researchers Cross Boundaries to Address Real-World Problems


Researchers explain their posters at the 2014 UTEP IDR Symposium in April.
Researchers explain their posters at the 2014 UTEP IDR
Symposium in April.
Photo courtesy of Andrea Tirres.

Editor's note: As the emphasis on interdisciplinary research continues to grow in higher education, is launching a new series this summer to highlight a few of the interdisciplinary research projects at UTEP making an impact in the community, across the region and around the globe.

In order to solve some of the world's most complex problems in areas such as climate change and global health, researchers at The University of Texas at El Paso have been engaging in interdisciplinary collaborations with experts from different disciplines.

With support from federal agencies, scientific institutions and industry leaders, UTEP is one of several universities in the United States promoting interdisciplinary research among faculty from multiple fields to spur breakthroughs in biochemistry, climate research, social and behavioral sciences, and public health.

"Some of the real-world problems are very complex and they cannot be resolved just by a single discipline," said Roberto Osegueda, Ph.D., vice president for research in the Office of Research and Sponsored Projects (ORSP) at UTEP. "For example, problems associated with the environment, education, global climate change, even some of the biomedical problems that we currently face, they're very hard to solve within a single discipline. You require multiple disciplines in order to frame a solution for (those problems)."

For the past 10 years, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have designated funds for interdisciplinary research to address challenges in health, science and engineering, which often transcend a single discipline or program.

UTEP is one of the academic institutions benefitting from the NSF's funding opportunities that support interdisciplinary research.

In 2012, the NSF awarded a continuing five-year grant of approximately $5 million to the Cyberinfrastructure for Sharing Resources to Advance Research and Education, or Cyber-ShARE, Center of Excellence at UTEP.

Established in 2007, the center brings together experts in computer science, computational mathematics, education, Earth science and environmental science. The center's goal is to develop strong collaborative and interdisciplinary research, foster innovation and open doors for a new generation of scientists and engineers to obtain advanced degrees. The center also serves as an anchor for a project funded through the NSF Innovation Through Institutional Integration program. This five-year project aims to foster interdisciplinary research collaborations on campus that promote student success, integrate research and education, and result in effective education for a diverse student body. Efforts from this project have resulted in the Expertise Connector website and other interdisciplinary research initiatives on campus.

"Innovation and discovery often occurs when individuals from different disciplines work toward solutions, and solutions are often at the boundaries of the disciplines," said Ann Gates, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Computer Science in the College of Engineering. "Bringing a different perspective to a discussion or problem-solving session can move the group toward new ways of thinking. This cannot happen without providing collaborative environments – both virtual and in-person – where people can discuss and share their knowledge, knowing that there is respect, acknowledgement of individual contributions, and recognition of the value added from the team effort. The discovery or solution cannot be attributed to an individual — it has resulted from the team effort."

This year, the NIH will commemorate 10 combined years of achievement by the NIH Common Fund, and it is predecessor, the NIH Roadmap. The goal of the Common Fund's Interdisciplinary Research program was to change academic research culture such that interdisciplinary approaches and team science spanning various biomedical and behavioral specialties are encouraged and rewarded.

"More and more I see requests for proposals coming from multiple agencies requesting interdisciplinary solutions for the problems that they're proposing," Osegueda said.

UTEP's ORSP offers faculty and staff members the means to cultivate interdisciplinary collaborations at the University through an internal grant mechanism, strategic programming and connection-building events.

In conjunction with the Office of the Provost, ORSP's Interdisciplinary Research (IDR) Enhancement Program awards grants up to $20,000 to emerging or existing interdisciplinary teams.

The seed money from this competitive program is intended to support research activities that may lead to larger projects with external funding from agencies or foundations.

To date, 21 UTEP teams have been awarded IDR Enhancement Program funds. Proposals for the next round of funding are due July 25.

Ernesto Castañeda, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, was a member of one of the teams that received an IDR Enhancement grant for a project to promote health, hope and human development among Hispanics.

As a result of his participation in the project, Castañeda recently was awarded a grant from the Research Program on Migration and Health (PIMSA) at the University of California, Berkeley, to look at the local effect of immigration on mental health.

"After participating in this IDR group, I have been re-energized to collaborate across disciplines in projects and grants, and I have been an active member in a number of these activities," said Castañeda, who worked with William Medina-Jerez, Ph.D., associate professor in the College of Education; Lucia Durá, Ph.D., assistant professor of Rhetoric and Writing Studies in the Department of English; Hector Olvera, Ph.D., research assistant professor in the School of Nursing and Center for Environmental Resource Management; Holly Mata, Ph.D., formerly a postdoctoral research fellow in UTEP's Hispanic Health Disparities Research Center; and Maria Flores, community services supervisor with the Housing Authority City of El Paso.

For the past two years, Andrea Tirres, ORSP's first interdisciplinary network manager, has been the lead in assembling a portfolio of services and programs that support interdisciplinary activities across campus. One of the premier events she directs is the IDR Research Symposium at UTEP, which gives faculty, staff and graduate students an opportunity to network with individuals from diverse academic disciplines and provides a platform to explore challenges and opportunities surrounding team science.

"We expect that the upward trend in UTEP faculty and staff participating in interdisciplinary activities will continue, particularly as we expand and strengthen the programming that we have sponsored over the last couple of years," Tirres said. "Participation in this year's UTEP IDR Symposium, for example, more than doubled from 2013, our inaugural symposium year. In addition, we saw a 75 percent increase in the number of IDR Enhancement Program proposal submissions from round III to round IV of funding."

April's IDR Symposium focused on the theme of rewarding and recognizing interdisciplinary research. It featured flash presentations, graduate student and faculty poster presentations, an interactive team activity, and group discussions with college leaders and interdisciplinary research exemplars. The event's keynote speaker was Patricia Hurn, Ph.D., vice chancellor for research and innovation at The University of Texas System.

"Attending the IDR Symposium was particularly useful because faculty members were provided with a sense of the types of IDR teams that can be formed, how they evolved, and the types of challenges and opportunities that can be expected when someone pursues interdisciplinary research," said Lawrence Cohn, Ph.D., associate dean for research in the College of Liberal Arts, who served on one of the symposium's panels.

Tirres also organizes Faculty Engagement Encounters with departments and centers on campus. The goal of these events are to facilitate the expansion of each participant's professional support base, create an environment conducive to networking and expand a participant's knowledge base.

"Some people are naturally bent toward working in a team setting," Tirres said. "When you are in an institutional environment that supports interdisciplinary research, I think the opportunities for collaboration and innovation become more apparent. Moreover, the ease in realizing your team's success is facilitated through informed policies and programming."