CORVALLIS - Oregon State University has identified six strategic initiatives for investment that will bring to the university new centers for research and outreach, additional faculty, and undergraduate and graduate student scholarships, internships and educational opportunities.
These initiatives support OSU's recently adopted strategic plan. The university is reallocating funds internally to provide seed funding for the initiatives.
"It is important for the university to be able to make the hard decisions to redirect existing resources through programs like this," said OSU President Ed Ray. "It will allow us to better serve the needs of the people of Oregon in the future."
Total funding for the undertaking will be about $2 million annually for five years, according to Sabah Randhawa, OSU's interim provost and executive vice president.
"Our goal is to focus the university's efforts in areas that leverage existing strengths, have the potential for growth and outside funding, and, while advancing science, will help OSU in its land-grant mission of addressing the needs of Oregon and the region," Randhawa said.
"There were several other proposals that also had great potential for success," he added, "but we decided to limit our scope at this time to six proposals that fit well within five established theme areas identified in the strategic plan."
The six initiatives are:
- A Center for Health Aging Research: Linking Individuals, Families and Environments (LIFE);
- Computational and Genome Biology;
- Ecosystem Informatics: Mathematics, Computer Science and Ecology;
- Subsurface Biosphere Education and Research;
- Sustainable Rural Communities;
- Water and Watershed.
Randhawa said the proposals were submitted by teams of OSU faculty from different colleges and departments - and that interdisciplinary approach was intentional. "OSU's strength is the depth and breadth of our faculty," he said, "and our ability to create interdisciplinary teams of wide-ranging expertise should be attractive to external funding sources. Teaming faculty with different perspectives will lead to richer, more diverse perspectives and approaches."
The Center for Healthy Aging Research will bring together faculty specializing in different facets of aging, from diet and genetics, to bone health, to the psychological, social and ethical implications of the "graying of America."
Researchers will study the mechanisms underlying the biological aging processes and how the body responds to "stresses," from bone fractures to drug interactions and infections, to psychosocial and environmental stressors. A better understanding of the interface among physical, psychological and social well-being - and technological innovations to optimize aging - will result from multidisciplinary research.
Key units will include OSU's Linus Pauling Institute and the Colleges of Health and Human Sciences and Engineering.
"By 2025, Oregon is projected to be fourth in the nation in the proportion of older adults, so the investment in aging research is critical," said Karen Hooker, an associate professor of human development and family sciences at OSU and one of the principal investigators for the initiative.
The Computational and Genome Biology Initiative will build on the enormous growth in genome data over the past 10 years. These new data represent a vast, new scientific frontier, but exploration requires new tools and experimental approaches. The OSU initiative will capitalize on the university's strength in creating new combinations of mathematical, computational and biological approaches to speed up breakthroughs in medicine, agriculture and environmental science.
"OSU has the potential to be an engine for the development of Oregon-based bioscience industries and a provider of a skilled workforce for these industries," said James C. Carrington, director of OSU's Center for Gene Research and Biotechnology. "It depends, however, entirely on research innovations and the delivery of an education that emphasizes genome-based science and advanced computational skills."
Ecosystem Informatics has a similar goal in a different field. As in genome research, the amount of data collected involving ecosystems and natural resources is staggering. Sharing, interpreting and synthesizing that knowledge requires a team-based approach to address complex problems including climate change, species extinction, water supplies and quality, earthquakes and tsunamis, the history of life, and the management of our oceans, forests and other resources.
"'Informatics' is, admittedly, a geeky term," said Julia Jones, a professor of geosciences and co-principal investigator for the initiative. "But it means a common-sense and powerfully unifying approach to complex problems. Ecosystem informatics is about creating useful information about ecosystems - and by information, we mean knowledge, understanding, relationships - using the tools of computer science and mathematics."
Jones said the initiative builds upon OSU's Innovative Graduate Education and Research Training program, a six-year, $3.9 million effort funded by the National Science Foundation to train future leaders in ecosystem informatics.
The Subsurface Biosphere Education and Research Initiative is based on one of OSU's most intriguing and far-reaching strengths - the study of the vast number of microorganisms living below the Earth's surface.
Scientists now believe that the weight of these subsurface microbes equals that of all of the plant and animal life on the surface. This sub-surface life has huge implications for ecology, deposits of oil, gas and minerals, water resources, agriculture and medicine. These microorganisms have been found in some of the most inhospitable places on earth and may be tied to life on other planets.
"This is really a rich area of research and education and one of the goals of the initiative is to create a center of excellence at OSU focusing on the subsurface biosphere," said Lewis Semprini, a professor in the College of Engineering.
"It has implications for a wide range of benefits, from environmental cleanup to a better understanding of soil processes," he added.
The Sustainable Rural Communities Initiative is a statewide program to address the needs and challenges of Oregon's rural towns. The goal is for faculty to provide ongoing research and analysis to allow decision-makers to develop successful strategies for helping rural communities overcome disadvantages that come with small size and geographic isolation, said Bruce Weber, a professor of agricultural and resource economics.
"OSU is uniquely positioned for this initiative because of our faculty expertise in several different colleges as well as our statewide Extension Service," said Weber.
"In addition to generating new knowledge through research, one of the goals of the initiative is to train a new generation of community leaders, professionals and scholars through a new academic program in Rural Studies and Rural Policy."
The Water and Watersheds Initiative also is based on an emerging need and existing OSU strengths. Despite its reputation for abundant rain, rivers and lakes, Oregon is beset by water quantity and quality challenges, from water rights issues in the Klamath basin to pollution concerns in the Willamette River. This initiative is designed to coordinate the many water-related activities at OSU, and capture additional opportunities for research, education and outreach.
One goal is to establish a new Institute for Water and Watersheds that would leverage additional funding and educational opportunities.
"The institute will not only create a physical and intellectual center for water research at OSU," said Roy Haggerty, an associate professor of geosciences, "it will complement the Institute for Natural Resources in providing outreach to Oregon communities and solutions to water resource issues."