Research News

Communities of Excellence have catalyzed innovation across disciplines over five dynamic years

Triptych represent the three communities of excellence. .

By CHARLOTTE HSU

Published July 27, 2021

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“Five years into this effort, the mission that guided the communities’ development — to foster interdisciplinary research networks to address important global challenges — is imbued throughout the university. ”
Venu Govindaraju, vice president for research and economic development

In 2015, UB established three Communities of Excellence to address critical societal challenges through interdisciplinary research, education and engagement in three broad areas: the Genome, Environment and Microbiome (GEM), Global Health Equity (CGHE) and Sustainable Manufacturing and Advanced Robotic Technologies (SMART).

The objective was to foster collaboration and develop capabilities across the university in three diverse research areas, and over time, the people involved would help shape the focus through specific programs and projects.

“The communities were designed to bring people together — to create a space for conversation and to support great research ideas and enable them to incubate and germinate,” says Chitra Rajan, associate vice president for research advancement.

“Important goals included positioning the university to be more competitive in transdisciplinary research and in developing effective teams that incorporate knowledge, methods and approaches from many different disciplines.”

And that’s exactly what has happened. This model of collaboration — driven by hundreds of faculty, staff and students — has had an enormous impact on catalyzing innovation in research, education and engagement within UB and in partnership with other individuals and organizations.

“The most pressing challenges facing the world today are going to be solved by diverse groups of people working together across disciplines,” says Venu Govindaraju, vice president for research and economic development. “The Communities of Excellence have thrived as a result of the energy and ideas of the many researchers, educators and community partners that have come together to pursue the projects that they have determined are important. Five years into this effort, the mission that guided the communities’ development — to foster interdisciplinary research networks to address important global challenges — is imbued throughout the university.”

Adapt to key challenges, including COVID-19

The communities have helped to bring in tens of millions of dollars in external funding so far, with additional proposals pending, Rajan says.

Also, the communities have developed innovative educational programs, hosted events, seeded projects, acquired equipment and developed research infrastructure, and been deliberate in their collaborations with practitioners, policymakers and community partners to advance solutions to critical challenges in their respective areas of focus.

The communities have also helped set the stage for UB faculty, staff and students to pivot quickly, working across disciplines to address the COVID-19 pandemic.  

For instance, GEM’s investment in glycomics facilities and programs enabled research that seeks to understand how SARS-CoV-2 enters cells to initiate infection.

GEM is also collaborating with the Erie County Department of Health, the Wadsworth Center in Albany, Kaleida Health, Erie County Medical Center and KSL Diagnostics to perform genome surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 variants in Western New York and developed materials for education surrounding COVID-19 vaccination.

CGHE supported a project to share COVID-related risk and prevention information with populations around the world who are speakers of minority and marginalized languages. And SMART engaged with community partners and interdisciplinary teams within UB to produce protective equipment, such as fabric and 3D-printed face masks. These are only a few of a multitude of examples within each community.

Engaging the UB community

About 200 faculty members from across every school and college have been active members of GEM, CGHE and SMART, and far more have participated in activities organized by the communities. Students and staff have also been heavily involved. Leaders and key team members have included:

  • GEM: Co-Directors Norma Nowak and Jennifer Surtees; Education Coordinator Sandra Small; Director of Outreach Activities Bridget Brace-MacDonald; and Administrator Sara Thomas.
  • CGHE: Co-Directors Katarzyna Kordas and Samina Raja; and Programs Managers Jessica Scates and Alexandra Judelsohn. Pavani Ram and Korydon Smith were the founding directors and Lisa Vahapoğlu played a critical role in program coordination from 2016 to 2020.
  • SMART: Co-Directors Kemper Lewis and Jin Young Song; Deputy Director Ken English; and former co-director Omar Khan.

The three communities’ successes to date are too numerous and varied to name comprehensively. The following examples reflect a diversity of achievements, but don’t fully capture the breadth and depth of all that the communities have accomplished thus far:

CGHE has illustrated how an equity-centered approach can promote global health by combining the power of health and non-health disciplines in transdisciplinary research, education and policy action. CGHE faculty published over 240 peer-reviewed journal articles, special issues in leading journals to shape the discourse on public health equity, and books and monographs. Founding co-directors Smith and Ram led the compilation of a multidisciplinary textbook, “Transforming Global Health: Interdisciplinary Challenges, Perspectives, and Strategies,” which showcases 19 chapters by faculty from 23 departments/centers across UB, including architecture, geography, history, family medicine, environmental engineering, urban planning and more.

Committed to translating science into policy and action, locally and globally, CGHE has influenced change in domains ranging from food inequities, health of refugees, neonatal and child survival, adolescent well-being, environmental exposures like air pollution, and access to surgical care in conflict zones. CGHE teams’ work has been published by global agencies (for example, “Local Government Planning for Community Food Systems” was published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and has influenced policies, methods and processes pertaining to global health equity).

In addition to routinely hosting summits, workshops and webinars, CGHE’s publishes the Global Health Equity Research in Translation policy brief series to draw attention to UB research among decision makers, policy makers, advocacy groups, philanthropists and broader media locally and internationally. CGHE has served as a fertile training ground, recruiting, retaining and graduating award-winning students and trainees from around the world. Educational offerings include its popular Global Innovation Challenge and a new multidisciplinary MS degree in international development.

SMART contributed to the development of a robotics track for students pursuing a MS degree in engineering science, and funded advanced manufacturing projects relating to topics that include structures built using interlocking 3D-printed elements, health impacts of drones, and reducing costs and improving safety through human-robot collaboration.

In addition, SMART’s exploratory funding program and facilities supported the initial exploration and research that led to six National Science Foundation CAREER awards and at least $12 million in awarded funding and over 130 publications in peer reviewed journals and conferences. In partnership with Boston Valley Terra Cotta, SMART faculty established the Advanced Ceramics Assemblies Workshop (ACAW), leveraging the facilities of the SMART Fabrication Factory to create a hands-on research and development workshop for architects and facade engineers to explore the use of terra cotta in building envelope design.

GEM stimulated interdisciplinary research teams across academic units to investigate how genomes and microbiomes impact human health. The community has supported these efforts with pilot funds, a work-in-progress series, symposia and infrastructure. In turn, this has led to a substantial return on investment in terms of funding, publications and presentations of work nationally and internationally. Additionally, GEM facilitated the creation and approval of a two-year, master’s-level genetic counseling program, which was developed with faculty from across UB.

To promote knowledge and understanding regarding genomics on and off campus, GEM launched the Institute for Genomic Literacy and developed a partnership ecosystem in Western New York to engage with the broader community. This network includes UB’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute community engagement team; public, private and charter schools across the region, including Buffalo Public Schools; the Buffalo Museum of Science; and Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center.

Through these partnerships, GEM has promoted microbiome and genome literacy through symposia across the disciplines, performances in collaboration with UB’s Department of Theatre and Dance, public workshops and movie nights, extensive K-12 engagement, such as a second-grade microbiome workshop and a virtual COVID-19 chat series for K-12 students.

GEM also partnered with UB’s Department of Art to create the Coalesce Center for Biological Art, which provides studio space, workshops, exhibitions, and graduate and residency opportunities relating to biological art and emerging practices in the arts and a place where scientists and non-scientists meet and interact.

Together, the communities have created an ecosystem that is capable of supporting teams of faculty and students to apply new ideas, approaches and methods to develop research and educational programs and community partnerships to respond to emerging challenges. This infrastructure will continue to strengthen the university for years to come.