Published February 10, 2015

"We believe very strongly that the complexity of the human condition requires a multidisciplinary approach to solving the most pressing issues of our time."

One of the most talked-about cancer treatments in recent years emerged not from a medical lab but an engineer’s bench: a targeted cancer therapy that uses lasers and nanoballoons to target tumors and deliver anti-cancer drugs directly to them. The therapy was developed by UB biomedical engineering assistant professor Jonathan Lovell, who has received a prestigious National Institutes of Health grant to fund and develop his pioneering work.

Professor Lovell’s nanoballoons are a fascinating example because they embody so much of what I think distinguishes the best of 21st century university research and discovery.

First and foremost, this achievement is a powerful illustration of why academic research matters—how it transforms lives and communities on a daily basis; how it tackles age-old problems while pointing the way to solutions and questions no one has thought of before.

Second, and also critically important, this example demonstrates what amazing things can happen when different minds and disciplines come together to tackle a problem from many angles. This tiny drug-delivery device, literally “1/1,000 of the diameter of a human hair,” represents the outcome of many fields coming together—including medicine, biochemistry, engineering, nanotechnology, and drug therapy—to take on one of the most critical diseases facing the globe. The result is what National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins has called a “terrific example of how bioengineering can bring fresh solutions to longstanding medical challenges.”

These two principles are really at the heart of UB’s worldview. We believe very strongly that the complexity of the human condition requires a multidisciplinary approach to solving the most pressing issues of our time.  

Over the past several years, UB has invested significantly in recruiting more world-class, high-impact research faculty like bioemedical engineering assistant professor Jonathan Lovell, who has received a prestigious NIH grant to fund his pioneering nanotechnology research with revolutionary implaications for cancer treatment. 

A culture of collaboration

The collaborations of UB scholars across the disciplines have led to breakthroughs that have saved lives and transformed daily life around the globe, from mapping the human genome to developing a national early childhood education model in the critical STEM fields.

While we have a long history of research excellence within several individual programs, UB recognizes that the critical breakthroughs most often take place at the intersection of fields and disciplines. Over the past decade, we have developed and implemented a strategic process for fostering an academic culture that actively encourages scholarly collaboration across the disciplines.  

“Ours is a truly trans-disciplinary vision, transcending academic boundaries to think holistically about our best opportunities for leadership and impact in a global, 21st century world.”

An innovative scholarly paradigm

Refining our institutional focus to collaboratively solving the critical problems facing our society in the 21st century, we have developed an academic strategy that focuses on multidisciplinary collaborations in areas where we have particular strength and promise for continued growth, as well as areas of key societal relevance. 

This interdisciplinary paradigm has formed the basis for how we invest, university-wide. Our deans across the disciplines have collaborated in a cluster-hiring strategy that has enabled UB to build extraordinary robustness in our faculty. This approach has enabled UB to recruit more of the world’s best and brightest faculty leading the conversation in their fields. 

Over the past few years, through this hiring strategy, we have recruited approximately 150 new top faculty conducting cross-disciplinary research in priority areas. And like Professor Lovell, they are already making a visible impact in our communities: from changing how we diagnose and treat critical diseases like Parkinson’s and M.S., to pioneering advancements in homeland security; reforms to how our nation’s schools approach bullying and school violence; new developments in how we understand climate change; and great strides in mitigating natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes on a global scale.

A magnet for the best and brightest

As this new paradigm becomes part of the cultural and organizational fabric of our university, it is steadily expanding UB’s stature, renown, and impact. The world’s best and brightest faculty are increasingly coming to UB because they want to be part of the cutting-edge research discoveries and breakthroughs that occur at the intersection of disciplines. 

At the same time, UB is attracting more high-caliber students who are drawn by the unique opportunity to work directly with faculty at the cutting edge of their fields.  In the process, UB has become widely known as a center of cross-disciplinary intellectual activity. 

Building on our investment in interdisciplinary research

This investment in trans-disciplinary research is relatively new, but it is already yielding powerful returns in the form of life-changing discoveries like new findings about depression, new strategies for science education in our public schools, energy-saving “smart” windows, new strides in building an underwater Internet, a new understanding of key health concerns in post-menopausal women, and the identification of brain receptors that are potential drug targets for Alzheimer’s disease.

Now, as part of the next evolution of our UB 2020 vision, we are expanding this paradigm to include academic programs through the development of curricular themes that speak to our core research strengths and enhance our relevance in responding to broadly defined problems and social challenges: namely, health, innovation, justice, humanity, and the environment.

One such initiative is the new RENEW institute, which addresses the broad range of scientific, political, and social issues related to energy, water, and the environment. This institute focuses on objective exploration of timely topics in these interrelated fields, from restoration of urban brownfields and contaminated industrial sites to evaluating the impact of biofuels and other alternative energy sources. UB has great faculty capacity in a wide array of fields that intersect with these issues, from environmental engineering, to law and management, to public health. Now, under the leadership of internationally recognized materials scientist Amit Goyal, recently appointed as director, these efforts are aligning as a single multi-faceted effort with tremendous potential impact—regionally and globally.

As a public research university, this is what our mission is all about: to enrich the quality of life through our ideas, discoveries, and contributions. Ours is a truly trans-disciplinary vision, transcending academic boundaries to think holistically about our best opportunities for leadership and impact in a global, 21st century world. Building on our history of innovation and collaboration across disciplines, we believe the outcome of realizing this vision will be transformative—with life-changing impact for all the communities we serve.

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