CRC interdisciplinary research spurs innovation and NSF grants

The CRC Faculty Fellowship connects cross-disciplinary researchers to take on global problems

May 13, 2019

Dark matter – the hypothetical, invisible, gravitational glue that makes up about 85 percent of the universe’s mass – is a difficult theory to grasp. The same goes for the research trying to observe it. Amy Roberts, PhD, assistant professor in the physics department, disagrees.

“What we’re doing is not rocket science,” said Roberts, who works on the Super Cryogenic Dark Matter Search (SuperCDMS) SNOLAB project, which uses an ultra-sensitive detector to search for signals from the hypothesized particle in a lab more than a mile below the Earth’s surface. “Atoms move around, and that makes things warmer. When things get warmer, we measure it. It’s an amazing chain of technology that makes it happen, but it’s not intrinsically complex.”

The complexity, Roberts has since discovered, is in visualizing the raw data of those measurements. 

After a Creative Research Collaborative (CRC) meeting last year, Roberts met Jenny Filipetti, MFA, assistant professor at Inworks at CU Denver and Anschutz Medical Campus. Filipetti, an electronic media artist, has spent her career finding meaning in data. Her past artwork includes 3D vessels created by the volume and speed of a person’s breath, and an abstracted “light mirror” that transforms the movements and moods of passersby into flickering patterns of light.

The pair applied to the CRC Faculty Fellowship, a campus-wide initiative to foster innovative and interdisciplinary research. Their question was how to make the complex simple: How do you visualize the tiny atoms that fall through a detector and their chance encounter with a neutrino?

A new way of mentoring

Located in the Office of Research Services (ORS), the CRC began in 2015 and creates cross-disciplinary research teams across the CU Denver campus. The goal is two-fold: mentor faculty researchers and help them see the potential of their work.

The scope and reach of that work is up to interpretation, said Michael Jenson, PhD, assistant vice chancellor for Research and Creative Activities, who oversees the program along with a steering committee comprised of former fellows.

“In their own disciplines, researchers tend to go right into their projects, figuring out how to define them within disciplinary traditions,” said Jenson. “The CRC is more of a conversation about “what is the project” if we integrate several traditions?

Over the course of 12 months, fellows work together on a project, receive feedback from the CRC steering group and present their work in a brown-bag lecture series. By the end of the year, they should have the experience and skills they need to apply for a seed grant to further shape their research or external funding to see it through.

In its fifth year, the CRC fellowship will partner with the Comcast Media and Technology Center (CMTC) for the first time, placing student fellows from the center within each team to communicate and promote the research. 

Interdisciplinary research leads to NSF grants

During its pilot year, a group of researchers studied how place-based technologies may be used to connect local citizens and stimulate public discussion about their concerns. Since then, the CRC has paired several researchers, including an environmental microbiologist with an electrical engineer to explore the potential of microbial fuel cells as a renewable energy source; and professors in computer science, business and sociology to examine the impact of the use of body-worn cameras in Colorado police departments, which led to a National Science Foundation (NSF) Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant. 

Faculty members can apply with a rough outline of their project as a group or as an individual. If they apply solo, the CRC will consider their interests and background in relation to other faculty and projects that have been proposed that year. If a good “match” seems possible, the CRC proposes that a project team be created.  The teams each receive funding to begin their work for the year, putting it toward proposals for research grants or creative endeavors like exhibitions, texts and lab-based explorations.

Even after the fellowship, the interdisciplinary bug catches on and in some cases, fellows have moved on from their respective groups to form new ones – like Esther Sullivan, Carrie Makarewicz (CRC fellowship alumni) and Andrew Rumbach, who paired up post-fellowship to win a $600,000 NSF grant last year.

A roadmap to collaboration

Jenny Filipetti, MFA ; Amy Roberts, PhD

The 2018 class of fellows included Roberts and Filipetti, who are creating data visualization workshops for scientists and eventually, an art exhibit this fall called SciArt. They’re also submitting their work to Leonardo, an international peer-reviewed journal that focuses on the application and influence of the arts and humanities on science and technology. They both say they wouldn’t have been able to explore the intersection of tech and art without the CRC grant.

“I think a lot of our conversations led to actionable goals,” said Filipetti. “And those gave us a roadmap to not only what this collaboration looks like, but also for how we work with students. We wouldn’t have gotten there if we had to box our ideas out too quickly into the process. Unlike a grant proposal, CRC feels like a space where open conversation is welcomed.”

Explaining science is like “speaking in different languages”

The CRC brought together a second team comprised of Alireza Vahid, PhD, assistant professor of electrical engineering (College of Engineering, Design and Computing); Allison Goodwell, PhD, assistant professor of civil engineering, (College of Engineering, Design and Computing); and William Swann, PhD, assistant professor in the School of Public Affairs.

William Swann, PhD ; Alireza Vahid, PhD

The committee found that Vahid’s background in information theory and data storage could boost Swann’s research that looks into the multi-dimensional sustainability choices made by local communities. The pair submitted their proposal to the CRC. Then the committee realized Goodwell, who was using ecohydrology to study ecosystem resilience under a changing climate, could add a third dimension to the group. With its combined skillset, the team began researching the ways in which large data science and environmental modeling can help a community and its developers better understand future environmental impacts and better plan for their future. They’re currently waiting to hear back about a NSF grant. But team members admit it wasn’t an easy process at first.

Allison Goodwell, PhD

“We didn’t speak different dialects; we spoke different languages,” said Goodwell, who, like her teammates, had collaborated within her school before, but never between colleges. “It was eye opening, but it improved my grant writing skills as we went along. When you have to explain the science to outside people, you explain it better.”

Both teams in 2018 were made up of junior faculty, but the fellows say that these kinds of collaborations are even more advantageous for senior faculty, who have more time and experience available to dig into the research.

And the Office of Research Development and Education (ORDE) has found that large funding agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation, strongly encourage cross-disciplinary efforts as do smaller federal and non-federal sponsors. As a result, teams from another interdisciplinary initiative—ORDE’s interdisciplinary research groups— where faculty pursue collaborations on broad topics like immigration and security, have naturally led to CRC fellowships as well as external grants.

The 2019 CRC Faculty Fellowship

The 2019 CRC Faculty Fellowship application is due June 21, 2019. The steering committee will choose five to eight fellows and provide each team with faculty development funding, access to campus resources and experienced cross-disciplinary researchers for mentoring. The program description and application can be found here. For questions about the application process or the fellowship in general, contact Michael Jenson.