Research: The Future is Now
With funding from federal research agencies, TSC member institutions are conducting the research of tomorrow today. They're also counting on continued investment, as well as new funding through legislation like the CHIPS and Science Act, to write the next chapter of American innovation.
It is vital Congress passes steady and predictable increases for research agencies through the annual appropriations process and provides the new money necessary to launch fresh and exciting research programs, from advanced materials and quantum information science to biotechnology, artificial intelligence, clean energy, and microelectronics and semiconductors.
Here are just some of the ways university researchers are already utilizing federal funding to conduct future-driven research. With additional funding, just imagine the ways they will be able to sharpen the United States' global competitive edge and inspire a STEM workforce ready to meet any challenge with speed and ingenuity.
The Circe (Circular industries with cellular factories) Institute Project at Harvard University is working to engineer microbes to produce biodegradable polymers that can be used to manufacture bioplastics, biodegradable polyesters, and other everyday products. At present, these cannot currently be broken down and the process to produce them further pollutes the environment. With funding from the Department of Energy, the team is first tackling personal care products by replacing these petrochemical ingredients with ingredients that are produced by its engineered microbes in support of a fully sustainable bioeconomy.
The Harvard Quantum Initiative (HQI) brings together researchers from across sectors to explore new ways to transform quantum theory into useful systems and devices by leveraging university, federal, and industry support. After HQI’s launch in 2018, the university inaugurated one of the first-ever PhD programs in quantum science and engineering in 2021, providing the foundational education and hands-on experience for the next generation of quantum innovators. Further, Harvard’s Center for Integrated Quantum Materials, one of the National Science Foundation’s Science and Technology Centers, plans to build new types of quantum electronic and photonic systems and quantum networks while engaging young and diverse students to build the quantum workforce from the ground up.
Rochester Institute of Technology
A Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) researcher is developing technology to study how collagen overproduction affects progression. Funded by the Department of Defense’s Congressional Directed Medical Research Program, Dr. Karin Wuertz-Kozak is leading the investigation into new therapeutic approaches to treat scleroderma, a chronic autoimmune disease that involves the overproduction of collagen. They are building 3D skin models to simulate collagen overproduction and see if it can be reversed or paused through pharmacological approaches and therefore improve the lives of those affected by scleroderma-induced diseases.
Dr. Linwei Wang, a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, is leading a group of researchers in developing computational systems to create individualized 3D imaging of a patient’s heart. With funding from the National Institutes of Health, their work could enable clinicians to study patients noninvasively, improving care for cardiac arrhythmia and other heart diseases. Dr. Wang, a winner of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, says, “Being able to apply what we learn to helping patients and addressing the challenges that clinicians face is motivating for me.”
Stony Brook University
Stony Brook University researchers teamed up with the Department of Energy’s (DEO) Brookhaven National Lab to create “quantum internet”. Funded by the National Science Foundation and the Air Force Research Laboratory, the group is entangling digital bits in a network so information can be transferred seamlessly between standard and quantum computers. The project has the potential to completely revolutionize the internet and information sharing as we know it.
University of Alaska
Researchers at the University of Alaska have made a breakthrough in the ability to quantify spatial patterns and detect changes in terrestrial vegetation across large landscapes. A modeling project team led by researcher Timm Nawrocki has developed a method that can successfully predict 40-60% of the observed variation in foliar cover per plant species. Other methods are closer to predicting 10% of any ecological variation in nature in general. Practical applications of this predictive method include landcover mapping that land managers can have confidence in and use to make management decisions. Additionally, this can assist in managing wildlife habitat – estimating landscape-level forage quality for herbivore populations such as moose and caribou. The initial funding for the work came from the Bureau of Land Management but The University of Alaska Anchorage is currently in the process of getting support from multiple agencies to fund a statewide mapping effort.
A team of researchers from UCLA’s Institute for Carbon Management and SeaChange, a UCLA spinoff company, are using seawater to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and accelerate solutions to climate change. With funding from the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy Program, the group is launching two pilot systemsin Los Angeles and Singapore that leverage technology developed by SeaChange to capture and dissolve greenhouse gases in seawater, which holds nearly 150 times more CO2 than air. The treated seawater will then be able to absorb more greenhouse gases and repeat the cycle. At scale, the team estimates about 10 billion tons of atmospheric carbon dioxide could be removed annually and play a critical role in carbon mitigation.
Over the last decade, UCLA students have had the unique opportunity to engage with space research through two satellites called the Electron Losses and Fields Investigation CubeSats (ELFIN). ELFIN are the first end-to-end NASA space science mission built entirely at UCLA, launched initially to monitor space weather to help scientists understand how solar winds generate magnetic storms in space. With additional funding from the National Science Foundation, more than 300 undergraduate students have worked on ELFIN, who in spite of the mission coming to a close, have been inspired to pursue further research into the workings of our universe.
Researchers in UC Irvine’s Fortin Lab have combined artificial intelligence and data science with neuroscience. Backed by funding from NSF and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the team is using machine learning to process and analyze data to ultimately understand how the brain organizes memories and how cognitive disorders impact the brain’s ability to do so. Further, the tools and methodologies the lab has developed can be applied across a variety of research fields. Dr. Babak Shahbaba, who co-led the study, also noted, “We are training the next generation of scientists, who have the required skills to conduct interdisciplinary research.”
UC San Diego
When it comes to spinal cord injuries, researchers have been split as to whether stem cell therapy or intense physical rehabilitation is more effective at promoting tissue regeneration, so scientists at UC San Diego decided to test both methods. They found that a combination of stem cell grafting at the site of injury and rehabilitation resulted in significant recovery beginning just one month after injury. The results open up a new line of potential treatments for spinal cord injuries, which affect thousands of people across the country and most often leave patients paralyzed or with diminished physical function. Funding for the research was provided by the Veterans Administration.
UC Santa Cruz
Identifying the early signs of heart disease is critical to prevent future cardiovascular events, but many places around the world lack the technology to do so. That’s why an electrical engineer at UC Santa Cruz, backed by funding from the National Institutes of Health, is developing a new technology to detect coronary artery calcification – a common sign of heart disease – that can be incorporated into routine chest x-rays without requiring additional radiation or scan time. The team is also designing AI algorithms to quantify how much calcium is present in the body. This next generation of x-ray imaging could eventually be used to detect lung and breast cancer, tuberculosis, and other diseases.
Researchers at UC Santa Cruz are utilizing funding from the National Science Foundation to explore a new vision of cyber-physical systems (CPSs), highly complex systems comprising algorithms, networks, and physical spaces such as power grids and self-driving cars. The team is aiming to rethink the algorithms behind CPSs to ensure they are adapted to computation constraints and run efficiently and reliably. Ricardo Sanfelice, lead principal investigator (PI) on the project, professor of electrical and computer engineering, and director of the Baskin School of Engineering’s Cyber-Physical Systems Research Center (CPSRC), says, “We envision that our results will have a broad impact by improving the safety and reliability of transportation systems… by reducing the carbon footprint of these systems, and training the workforce of the future in key CPSs science.”
University of Florida
The University of Florida (UF) AI Initiative combines world-class supercomputing, cutting-edge research, and a transformational approach to curriculum. UF’s HiPerGator AI supercomputer – built with a $50+ million commitment from NVIDIA – is one of the world’s most powerful, allowing researchers to pursue previously unimagined questions in areas like disease prediction, crop development, cybersecurity, and conservation with support from the National Science Foundation, USDA, the Department of Defense, and many other federal agencies.
The University of Florida is home to one of the nation’s most innovative wind tunnels for modeling the impacts hurricane and tornado winds have on structures. One of only two National Science Foundation-supported experimental facilities dedicated to extreme wind events, the facility uses a combination of eight large fans and 319 smaller fans to recreate a wide variety of wind hazard scenarios, from hurricanes to downburst. The wind flows over an 1,100-element “terraformer” that can be configured to recreate any terrain, ranging from beaches to mountains, and 3-D printed building models equipped with a wide array of sensors to monitor the stresses wind events place on structures.
University of Iowa
Researchers at the University of Iowa (UI) will soon begin building two satellites to study the sun’s effects on earth’s magnetosphere, the region around the Earth that shields it from solar wind with its magnetic field. The project, called Tandem Reconnection and Cusp Electrodynamic Reconnaissance Satellites (TRACERS), is funded through NASA and was the single largest amount of external funding in UI history when it launched in 2019. After the design and construction process is complete, TRACERS’ satellites will be used to collect data on the magnetosphere to eventually create better models that can predict – and therefore prevent – disasters like the Quebec Blackout Storm of 1989, a nine-hour power outage in the province caused by a solar event.
In an increasingly technological world, encryption is a popular method to keep consumers’ information safe, but quantum computers could soon be able to decode those encryptions. That is why researchers at the University of Iowa are working to develop codes that cannot be broken by quantum computers. Funded by the Department of Energy, the project uses single photons that are impossible to distinguish to protect information and could therefore form the backbone of the future quantum internet.
University of Oregon
A researcher at the University of Oregon is working to improve the way networks handle large volumes of data required for machine learning. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the team is designing and implementing new algorithms to control and guarantee the performance of the edge AI. By integrating microservers at easy-to-reach points in the wireless network, AI services would become more efficient, convenient, and high-quality.
At the University of Oregon’s Oregon Center for Electrochemistry, researchers are studying a variety of ways to make renewable energy more efficient and pave the way for sustainable energy. One project, funded by the National Science Foundation, is examining how ions transfer into solids to improve battery function. Other work includes using bipolar membranes to separate water into acid and base, which can be used to capture carbon from the atmosphere, deacidify the ocean, and create more efficient industrial electrochemical processes.
University of Washington
The University of Washington’s AI Institute in Dynamic Systems, co-directed by Dr. J. Nathan Kutz, is working to integrate artificial intelligence into all disciplines of engineering. Launched in October 2021 with National Science Foundation (NSF) funding, the Institute is focused on developing fundamental technology in AI and ML for dynamic systems, applying that technology to real-world problems. and shaping educational and workforce development pathways. It’s one of ten NSF-funded AI research institutes across the country, which are committed to furthering equity and accessibility alongside scientific advancement.
The University of Washington launched a new interdisciplinary quantum traineeship known as Accelerating Quantum-Enabled Technologies (AQET). The program, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), will provide graduate students from a variety of fields to study quantum information science and technology (QIST) to prepare them for jobs in industries that will require an understanding of QIST.