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Our Big Idea

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.

Catherine HillRevolutionizing 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.

Leigh RaymondAffordable 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.

Dave EbertHarnessing 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.

Tom HertelManaging 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.

Yong ChenPhotonics 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.

Nate HartmanRealizing 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.

Dongyan XuTowards 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.

A word from the Chief Scientist

We are in the early dawn of a fourth industrial revolution. To explore the societal implications, and the opportunities that this revolution opens for Purdue, I want to start by borrowing the words of Cathy Engelbert, CEO of Deloitte LLP, who recently wrote:

 “The first three [industrial revolutions] unlocked the power of steam, electricity, and information technology, and in the process reshaped the way we live and work. Now we see the convergence of the physical, the digital, and the biological— a fusion revolution—and the implications will be no less sweeping.”

Engelbert suggests that as analytics, the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, blockchain, robotics, quantum computing, and 3D printing all rapidly advance, nearly every facet of the human experience will be dramatically altered.

In fact, I would go even further, and argue that the convergence of these and other technologies will impact not only where we live and how we move, but how we protect the environment, how we prevent and cure disease, how we feed the world, how we educate future generations, and how we work.

Convergence is already affecting critical fields such as the health sciences. In a recent report authored by three MIT leaders titled, Convergence: The Future of Health, the authors argue that, “convergence is already showing dramatic progress toward more powerful imaging technologies; nanotechnology for diagnostics and drug delivery; ‘silencing’ cancer genes; re-growing injured body parts, and unraveling the complexity of diseases.” They also caution that despite tremendous progress, “delivering on the full promise of Convergence is hindered by federal research funding practices that often reflect a classical, disciplinary-based structure. This structure harkens back to a time when life science, physical sciences, and engineering were viewed as separate activities…”

However, that threat to progress resides not only with Federal funding agencies locked into models rooted in the past, it also lies within universities vested in the same classical, discipline-based, siloed academic models that have changed little over time. As traditional models of education and research get disrupted, embracing the concepts and power of convergence will be key to making universities truly relevant to society in the future.

At Purdue we are very fortunate. We already have a number of interdisciplinary undergraduate and graduate programs. In addition, President Martin Jischke’s vision that created Discovery Park about 15 years ago, provides us with a foundation to lead from the front in the fusion revolution.  At Discovery Park–the place where disciplines converge to solve global challenges–we are focused on a series of initiatives that aim to position Purdue as a global leader in the development of the scientific basis, the engineering and technology solutions, the understanding of the social and policy dynamics, and the future talent that will make this fusion revolution a benefit to all of humanity.

In this blog, I will provide you with a glimpse into the various initiatives that faculty across campus are catalyzing here at Discovery Park to realize this vision of convergence. Our strategic themes capitalize on the core competencies of Purdue in the STEM disciplines, in nanotechnology and advanced instrumentation, big data, entrepreneurship, the social sciences, and understanding complex systems.

By 2050, the global population is expected to reach 9.6 billion. Global megatrends indicate that our planet will need to produce 70% more food by 2030, serve a  40-60% increased demand for energy resources by 2050, and have the infrastructure, technological and dynamic policy solutions to house, protect, and sustain our planet and its people.  Within that framework, Discovery Park seeks to advance research across, and at the intersection of, three main thematic areas:

  • Global Health
    • From innovative new treatment methods to game-changing healthcare delivery systems, Purdue scientists and researchers at Discovery Park are advancing efforts aimed at improving the health of people across the globe.
  • Global Sustainability
    • A global population explosion and the subsequent need for more food, the rise of the middle class and the growth of urban areas – these are global challenges shaping our future and guiding the research in Discovery Park.
  • Global Security
    • Convergence of knowledge is a central tenet of Purdue’s impact on the nation’s defense and security community. Our goal is to provide integrated, world-class scientific, engineering, policy, economic and social science problem-solving capabilities and solutions.

I look forward to sharing our initiatives and the impact that our teams are having in these areas. I invite all of our readers to follow this blog for updates and for information on how you can take part and engage in the exciting things happening at Discovery Park.

Tomás Díaz de la Rubia
Chief Scientist and Executive Director
Discovery Park


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