Interdisciplinary Seed Grants bring researchers together

Marc van Iersel and WenZhan SongIt might not seem like engineering and horticulture have much in common. But WenZhan Song and Marc van Iersel are finding new ways to intertwine their respective fields thanks to UGA’s Presidential Interdisciplinary Seed Grant Program.

Song and van Iersel’s project, “Smart cyber-physical systems for controlled-environment agriculture,” lies at the intersection of food security, energy and environmental sustainability, and includes additional faculty in the College of Engineering, Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and Terry College of Business.

“When the call for the Interdisciplinary Seed Grants came out, it was a perfect fit for this group, so we decided to apply. Getting the grant allowed us to formalize our collaboration and really start doing joint research,” said van Iersel, a professor of horticulture in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. “The hope of the joint work is that we can tackle the issue of energy efficiency in controlled-environment agriculture by integrating our respective knowledge in horticulture, engineering, energy informatics and computer science.”

The grant allowed the researchers to purchase and install sensors within a greenhouse to collect environmental and crop health data. The findings could have implications for improving food safety and for growing plants in space, as part of disaster relief efforts and for military applications. The team subsequently has received a grant from the USDA for $5 million over four years and has a pending proposal with the NSF to continue this line of research.

“Sometimes you have different languages, and sometimes you have different interests, but it’s about everyone stepping forward to find common ground,” said Song, Georgia Power Mickey A. Brown Professor in the College of Engineering.

The 11 other faculty teams that received Interdisciplinary Seed Grant awards last year also are working to find that common ground and expand their research. Their projects were selected from more than 150 research proposals.

The university’s investment of $1.37 million in the program has generated $12.9 million in awarded grants, with the potential for more in the future.

“A primary goal of the president’s seed grant program was to help teams demonstrate a history of working together to develop preliminary data that would make them competitive for major external grants,” said David Lee, vice president for research. “A return on investment of nearly 10-to-1 is thrilling.”

The Interdisciplinary Seed Grant Program represents a strategic investment by the University of Georgia in its faculty and the research enterprise.

“I am pleased the Interdisciplinary Seed Grant Program has achieved such impressive results in the short time since it was established,” said President Jere W. Morehead. “The success of this initiative demonstrates the value of supporting trailblazing research that combines the strengths of UGA faculty members across campus.”

Interdisciplinary Seed Grant proposals were reviewed by a team of UGA faculty and administrators assembled by Lee and Jennifer Frum, vice president for public service and outreach. The review team selected winning proposals based on demonstrated potential to address grand challenges and to generate new external funding in the future. Inclusion of public service and outreach components also was considered, among other criteria.

“All of Georgia benefits from a secure food supply and energy efficiency,” Frum said. “This project exemplifies the positive impact that Georgia’s land-grant and sea-grant institution can have on the state.”

For all of the recipients, these grants are providing new opportunities.

“Faculty appreciate the importance of interdisciplinary collaborations, particularly when it comes to addressing the major challenges embodied in UGA’s Great Commitments,” Lee said. “But realistically, it requires seed funding in order for faculty to devote the necessary time and resources to pursue these new avenues. This is why the president’s seed grant program has been so important.”

David Okech, M.S.W. program director and associate professor in the School of Social Work, has teamed with researchers from the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, College of Public Health, College of Family and Consumer Sciences and University of Liverpool in England to develop
evidence-based reintegration programming for female victims of human trafficking in West Africa.

They aim to develop a theoretical model of the factors that facilitate successful reintegration and create an intervention manual based on that model. To do this, they are collecting data from human trafficking survivors, health and social service providers, and governmental policy leaders. The ultimate goal is to craft intervention and reintegration programs that are responsive to the needs of survivors.

“Human trafficking is modern-day slavery and among the grandest challenges of our day,” Okech said. “It stands as one of the greatest violations of human rights and a manifestation of social injustice, and I felt I needed to do something about it. As a researcher, one way I could make an impact is to use research and evidence to inform programs and policies, going beyond the anecdotal portrayal of trafficking in the media.”

The formative work from their Interdisciplinary Seed Grant led to a five-year award by the U.S. Department of State’s Office to Combat and Monitor Trafficking in Persons and is part of its Program to End Modern Slavery. The new award to the university was recently mentioned at the 2018 United Nations General Assembly, helping to position UGA as a leader in the field. The State Department award will expand the work by Okech and his research team to Sierra Leone and Guinea in West Africa.

Carolyn Lauckner, an assistant professor of health promotion and behavior in the College of Public Health, is working with Bernadette Heckman, associate professor and director of clinical training in the Doctoral Counseling Psychology program and Health Psychology program in the College of Education, on a project using telemedicine to meet the mental health needs of people living with HIV/AIDS in rural Georgia.

They are working with the Georgia Department of Public Health’s existing statewide telemedicine network to pilot the expansion of mental health services using innovative videoconferencing technologies, allowing patients with limited access or transportation to receive care at no charge.

“This community-based research has been a great learning experience for me,” Lauckner said. “Having a better sense of the challenges facing community health clinics has helped me to better plan for and think through additional community-based projects I can do in the future.”

The project also provides a unique experiential learning opportunity for Heckman’s students, who are providing therapy. Heckman meets weekly with the students to discuss suggested therapies for the patients, and the students have presented their work at a conference.

“Students want to be involved in this project,” Heckman said. “It’s a great training opportunity, and students know that this is going to be the next wave of mental health services.”

Lauckner and Heckman are collaborating on a paper and plan to submit another grant proposal related to their work soon.

Mark Tompkins, a professor of infectious diseases in the College of Veterinary Medicine, is studying how microbiomes, or the microorganisms in a particular environment, affect respiratory infection, disease and transmission with researchers from the Odum School of Ecology and College of Public Health.

“We’re generating novel data that other people don’t have,” Tompkins said. “We wanted to have multiple pieces of data that would be powerful tools for asking additional questions.”

The researchers hope to develop mathematical models that could lead to more effective vaccines and are working to expand this research into new grant opportunities.

Additional principal investigators and topics of the winning proposals are:

  • Clark Alexander, director of the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography and professor of marine sciences in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, “Studying the UGA Marine Science Campus on Skidaway Island as a model for achieving coastal resiliency in the face of extreme weather.”
  • Marin Brewer, assistant professor of mycology and plant pathology in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, “Investigating microbial resistance to antifungal treatments used for plants and people.”
  • John Drake, Distinguished Research Professor of Ecology in the Odum School of Ecology, “Mapping the global risk of emerging infectious disease threats.”
  • Changying “Charlie” Li, professor of electrical and computer engineering in the College of Engineering, “Using robotic systems to accelerate the application of genome information in the improvement of food crops.”
  • Rebecca Matthew, assistant professor in the School of Social Work, “Building a network of cultural liaisons to improve the health and well-being of Athens-area Latinos.”
  • Amanda Murdie, Dean Rusk Scholar of International Relations and professor of international affairs in the School of Public and International Affairs, “Forecasting the threat of cyber attacks, nation by nation.”
  • Li Tan, assistant research scientist in the Complex Carbohydrate Research Center, “Developing sustainable materials for biomedical and environmental applications from waste plant biomass.”
  • David Tanner, associate director and assistant public service faculty in the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, “Enlisting the help of businesses in the expansion of America’s STEM workforce.”

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