It started with a brainstorming session. We wanted to find new ways to impact some of the most wicked global challenges society faces today, and change the world for the better in the process. We understood the power of convergence, and believed that an approach that coupled research in traditionally siloed STEM disciplines with novel digital technologies and data-based approaches, could provide new insights to confront and tackle many of these grand challenges, particularly when augmented by research and insights from the social sciences and the humanities.
In an effort to capitalize on this idea, and catalyze the type of transdisciplinary research that would bring truly wholistic approaches to solving wicked social problems, we launched a new program: The Discovery Park Big Idea Challenge. Our goal was to harness the strengths of Purdue University, and to provide resources to transdisciplinary teams of Purdue faculty and students pursuing new, bold and innovative ideas with the potential for transformative impact on society.
We issued the call for proposals in October of 2016, and the response from across the university was nothing short of phenomenal. Discovery Park received 46 proposals from more than 230 faculty, representing all 10 colleges and 45 departments. Of those 46 proposals, 16 were selected to advance to a final round. Those teams presented the value proposition of their Big Idea to a panel of judges, which included senior Purdue faculty and other external leaders from industry and academia.
While we were very fortunate to receive many outstanding proposals and compelling presentations, at the end of the deliberation, the frontrunners emerged. The seven winning teams will position Discovery Park, and by extension Purdue, as a leader in generating new solutions to global grand challenges in the areas of sustainability, health and security.
Revolutionizing Control of Vector-Borne Infectious Diseases
PI: Catherine Hill, professor of entomology and vector biology, Department of Entomology
Overview: New and reemerging mosquito-borne diseases such as Zika, malaria and dengue are on the rise as a result of unprecedented human population growth, habitat destruction and climate change. Scientists are seeking to develop a robust arsenal of weapons to combat these diseases. Hill’s team aims to meet this challenge by developing new control technologies based on non-toxic and non-lethal pesticides that suppress pathogen transmission by mosquitoes. Ultimately, they intend to create and commercialize compounds that disrupt disease transmission from mosquito to human without killing the insect and while preserving biodiversity.
Affordable Net Zero Housing and Transportation Solutions
PI: Leigh Raymond, professor of political science and director of the Center for the Environment in Discovery Park
Overview: Current housing and transportation options create environmental and social challenges and, in particular, impose high costs on low-income families. Drawing on expertise from multiple departments and colleges, Raymond and his team aim to transform the affordable housing sector so that onsite renewable energy and smart home and transportation technologies are the rule rather than the exception.
Harnessing Technology and Information Fusion to Enable Resilient and Sustainable Food-Water Balance under Evolving Environmental Conditions
PI: David S. Ebert, the Silicon Valley Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and director of VACCINE (Visual Analytics for Command, Control and Interoperability Environments)
Overview: By the year 2030, food production must be increased by 70 percent in order to feed a larger world population. Today, almost 80 percent of the world’s fresh water withdrawals from rivers, lakes and aquifers go to agriculture. Ebert and his collaborators will develop a human-computer collaborative decision-making system for sustainable agriculture that takes into account the complex relationships between real-world data, the socio-political environment and on-the-ground practices. The system will provide planners and policy- and decision-makers with more accurate information than previously possible, helping growers to optimize crop yields and minimize use of water and other resources.
Managing the Global Commons: Sustainable Agriculture and Use of World’s Land and Water Resources
PI: Thomas Hertel, Distinguished Professor of Agricultural Economics
Overview: The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) are focused on ending poverty, protecting the planet and ensuring that all people enjoy peace and prosperity. Meeting that goal will require reconciling future demands for food, energy, clean water, biodiversity, climate change mitigation and poverty reduction. Examining the possibility of win-win outcomes, Hertel and his team will establish an applied research consortium to analyze scenarios and explore policy alternatives that promote responsible public and private investment; sustainable management of critical, shared natural resources; and collective action toward meeting the UN’s SDG.
Photonics Science and Technologies for Security and Healthcare Applications
PI: Yong P. Chen, professor of physics and astronomy and of electrical and computer engineering and director of the Purdue Quantum Center
Overview: Approximately 50 million people in the U.S. alone become ill because of contamination by foodborne pathogens and other agents every year. Conventional and standard bacterial detection methods may take up to several hours or even a few days to yield an answer, and are inadequate to solve this problem. Building upon Purdue’s expertise in photonic science and engineering, and collaborations between multiple disciplines and stakeholders, Chen and his team intend to develop photonics-based food pathogen sensors that bridge the gap between university-scale research and real-world deployment, offering enhanced performance at lower cost.
Realizing Next-Generation Smart Manufacturing
PI: Nathan Hartman, the Dauch Family Endowed Professor and Associate Head, Department of Computer Graphics Technology, and director of Purdue’s Product Lifecycle Management Center of Excellence
Overview: The digital revolution ― driven by the rapid emergence of new technologies such as 3D printing, the Internet of Things (IOT), autonomous systems, robotics and others ― is changing the way humans live, work and play. In particular, it is transforming manufacturing, which is experiencing a fourth industrial revolution. Exploring approaches to digitalization throughout manufacturing, Hartman’s team will engage with stakeholders, create roadmaps and develop a cohesive, multidisciplinary approach to next-generation manufacturing aimed at creating a new competitive edge for U.S. manufacturers, and at training the next generation of talent that will carry this revolution forward.
Towards Cyber-Physical Vetting of Critical Infrastructures
PI: Dongyan Xu, professor of computer science and interim director of the Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security (CERIAS)
Overview: Critical cyber-enabled infrastructures, such as those in civil, energy, manufacturing and defense domains, are increasingly the target of cyber or physical attacks that pose significant threats to organizational and national security. However, no strong defenses currently exist that span both the cyber and physical domains. Xu and his team aim to develop an integrated framework for vetting a cyber-physical infrastructure system from both the cyber and the physical perspectives simultaneously. The outcome is expected to provide a new set of models, methods and tools for defending a wide range of cyber-physical infrastructures such as dams, nuclear facilities, IOT systems and others.
These winning teams will receive funding for up to two years, based on the scope, milestones and budget laid out in the proposals submitted. While this funding alone will not be sufficient to truly tackle and solve a challenge of the magnitude and scope presented by these teams, it will help nurture ideas and create opportunities for new and significant external funding—both public and private– that will position these teams and the university as leaders in their areas of endeavor. The teams will chart new pathways to discoveries, innovations and social and policy solutions, while training the next generation of future leaders and interdisciplinary talent.
Because we received a number of exemplary proposals, we also plan to work with the teams that did not obtain funding in this first round to help them identify other partner organizations and mechanisms for achieving their research goals.
We are thrilled to be able to work with these teams, and invite you to follow this blog for updates to their progress and for more information about the transformative work happening at Purdue University and Discovery Park.