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Press Release 09-176
Building Research Competitiveness

Through $20 million, five-year awards, NSF investment in multi-institutional and interdisciplinary projects provides physical, human and cyber infrastructure aimed at improving research competitiveness in six states

Photo of the Hawaiian landscape

Hawaii is one of six states that received a Research Infrastructure Improvement Track-1 award.
Credit and Larger Version

September 22, 2009

From biodiversity in the Hawaiian Islands to sustainable development in Maine, six research projects, each representing a state-wide consortium of institutions, have received awards from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for $20 million over five years.

The states funded are Hawaii, Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, South Carolina and South Dakota. These Research Infrastructure Improvement (RII) Track-1 awards are made as cooperative agreements; they are intended to improve the research competitiveness of states by enhancing their academic research infrastructure in areas of science and engineering supported by NSF and critical to the jurisdiction's science and technology efforts.

These awards were made by the NSF Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) in the Office of Integrative Activities. The mission of EPSCoR is to assist NSF in strengthening research and education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) throughout the United States, and to avoid the undue concentration of such research and education.

Hawaii's RII Track-1 award is focused on the effect of invasive species, human activities and climate change on the biodiversity and ecosystem of the Hawaiian Islands. Participating institutions are the University of Hawaii-Manoa, the University of Hawaii-Hilo, Kapiolani Community College, and Chaminade University. A component of the program is designed to develop a collaborative research network to address the environmental changes occurring throughout the Hawaiian archipelago in multiple ecosystems and across temporal and spatial scales. A second project component associated with ecological genomics and metabolomics will identify endemic plant and animal species in designated areas and examine the key species for genetic and metabolic adaptive responses. Results of these studies will be important for the understanding of both short-term and long-term changes in Hawaiian ecosystems and will contribute to understanding the impacts of human activities on tropical ecosystems world-wide.

"Support from NSF through EPSCoR will significantly enhance the ability of Hawaii's research community to understand and predict ecological changes resulting from various human impacts," said James R. Gaines, principal investigator and vice president for research at the University of Hawaii. "The development of high performance computing models and new 3-D visualization systems gives us information that can help us make informed decisions regarding public policy and land use that will benefit both the people and environment of Hawaii."

Kansas grasslands are at the center of a research project that addresses two challenging problems: the accelerating impacts of global climate change and the pressing need for renewable energy sources. The Kansas research will include social scientists' modeling of climate variables and human variables, such as changes in land cover and crop decisions made by farmers. It will also include natural scientists' evaluation of agricultural products closely tied to climate issues, biomass and its conversion to biofuels, and basic science fundamentals of solar energy conversion by photosynthesis and manmade technologies.

The work links four universities in the state: Kansas State University, the University of Kansas, Wichita State University, and Haskell Indian Nations University; an economic growth organization: Kansas Technology Enterprise Corporation; three Kansas-based companies: Abengoa Bioenergy, MGP Ingredients, and Nanoscale; and two companies outside Kansas: ADM (Illinois) and Netcrystals (California).

"This is a tremendous opportunity for the state of Kansas," said Kristin Bowman-James, principal investigator and project director of Kansas's EPSCoR program. "With this funding we will be able to harness the talents of researchers across the state to address two major issues of society today--climate change and renewable energy--under the umbrella of a single integrated initiative. We envision that this interdisciplinary research effort, bridging across the natural and social sciences and engineering, will ultimately allow Kansas to be a key leader in research that addresses serious global challenges.

Maine's award supports a center for sustainability solutions where place-based systems research, a knowledge-to-action focus, and strong stakeholder partnerships will serve as a test bed for developing solutions to sustainable development challenges in and beyond Maine. The research focuses on three interacting drivers of landscape change (urbanization, forest ecosystem management, and climate change) that affect Maine and other regions. Although Maine has faced some serious environmental challenges, its ecosystems have not reached crisis points. As a result, Maine can be a valuable model for exploring proactive, cost-effective approaches to sustainable development through the interdisciplinary approach of this project. Participating institutions are the University of Maine, University of Southern Maine and affiliated University of Maine System institutions in Machias, Presque Isle, Farmington, Fort Kent, and Augusta, along with the University of New England, Bates College, Bowdoin College, Colby College, Unity College, College of the Atlantic, and Maine's community colleges.

"The research team includes more than 30 faculty with expertise in a wide range of fields, including environmental science, engineering, economics, communication and public policy," said Michael J. Eckardt, principal investigator and vice president for research at the University of Maine. "While the University of Maine and the University of Southern Maine are the core research partners, virtually every Maine institution of higher learning--plus businesses, government agencies, non-profit organizations and other stakeholders--will join in this one-of-a-kind initiative to generate broad-based benefits for Maine."

Mississippi's RII Track-1 project is focused on the merging of biology and chemistry through computational investigation and simulation. The project seeks to do this by linking molecular modeling with macroscale physiology, deploying high-level data mining, and modeling nanoscale structures to understand binding interactions and catalytic processes.

Institutions involved are Mississippi State University, the University of Mississippi, Jackson State University, the University of Southern Mississippi, the University of Mississippi Medical Center, and Mississippi College.

The biological simulation efforts are broad, ranging from whole body physiological modeling methods to specific modeling of problems such as particle deposition in upper lung airways. The computational biology effort centers on developing new methods for integrating functional genomics information from high-throughput sources such as microarrays and next-generation gene sequencers. The computational chemistry effort is geared towards theoretical characterization of nanomaterials for sensor technologies and the development of models to predict the effects of nanomaterials on health and the environment.

"This award allows us to continue to build our infrastructure and to foster collaboration between institutions," said Sandra Harpole, principal investigator and associate vice president for research at Mississippi State University. "It will also enhance our ability to be recognized in the field nationally and internationally. In addition, the funding will support faculty that will help us bring students into the STEM pipeline, particularly in computational science."

South Carolina's award focuses on biofabrication--an emerging technology defined as computer-aided, layer-by-layer deposition of biologically relevant material with the purpose of engineering functional 3-D tissues and organs. This project unites the South Carolina Research Authority, Clemson University, Claflin University, Furman University, the University of South Carolina at Beaufort, South Carolina State University, Voorhees College, the Medical University of South Carolina, and the University of South Carolina at Columbia, as well as Greenville Technical College and Denmark Technical College, in an effort to engineer a 3-D vascular tree. Specific areas of research include analysis of structural-functional properties of an authentic branched vascular tree; directed differentiation of adult stem cells into monomer units of vascular cell types, specifically to induce stem cells isolated from fat tissue to enter a smooth muscle cell lineage; and functional biomechanical testing of engineered, sequential segments and comparison to authentic branched vascular trees.

"This is a very collaborative and cooperative project whose end goal is to grow organs," said Jerry Odom, principal investigator and executive director of university foundations at the University of South Carolina. "Just think how important that could be to people waiting for transplants. "The project includes the establishment of a center at the Medical University of South Carolina, and 22 new hires with expertise in this area at institutions around the state.

South Dakota's research efforts focus on one of the most critical issues facing our country today: energy generation and conversion. The project involves nine institutions: South Dakota State University, Augustana College, Black Hills State University, Dakota State University, Oglala Lakota College, Sinte Gleska University, Sisseton Wahpeton College, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, and the University of South Dakota. Three of these institutions are Tribal Colleges or Universities (TCUs). The researchers will create new devices in the area of photo-active nanoscale systems and will address research challenges associated with photovoltaics and solar energy, directwrite electronics, and the use of nanostructured materials for converting solar energy into chemical fuels. The research program includes efforts to develop a new class of solar cells that is capable of converting light in the near-infrared region to the visible region, thus recovering a portion of the energy that is currently lost. Efforts will also be directed to the development of low cost processes for solar cell production, such as printing or roll-to-roll painting. Nanostructured materials will be developed to mimic photosynthesis as an additional approach to improve device efficiency.

"This new RII Track-1 award will not only solidify existing partnerships between higher education, state government and the private-sector," said James A. Rice, principal investigator and director of South Dakota's EPSCoR Program. "It will also allow us to expand our network of participating institutions--including the state's primarily undergraduate institutions and tribal colleges and universities--to strengthen STEM research and education, a key strategy in the state's science and technology and workforce development plans."

EPSCoR is a program designed to fulfill the Foundation's mandate to promote scientific progress nationwide. The EPSCoR program is directed at those jurisdictions that have historically received lesser amounts of NSF Research and Development (R&D) funding. Twenty-seven states, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are currently eligible to participate. Through this program, NSF establishes partnerships with government, higher education, and industry that are designed to effect lasting improvements in a state's or region's research infrastructure, R&D capacity and hence, its national R&D competitiveness.

"These RII awards reflect the creative excellence and innovation that is characteristic of scientists and engineers in EPSCoR states," said Henry Blount, director of the EPSCoR program. "Their work will impact broadly in areas of national importance and will contribute strongly to the development of the workforce necessary to the nation's global technological competitiveness."

-NSF-

Media Contacts
Maria C. Zacharias, NSF, (703) 292-8454, mzachari@nsf.gov

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2014, its budget is $7.2 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 50,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes about 11,500 new funding awards. NSF also awards about $593 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

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