Program brings bright minds together to solve some of society’s most complex challenges

As an entomologist working on the fringes of NC State University’s main campus, Dr. Fred Gould didn’t have cause to set foot in the 1911 Building for the first three decades of his career on the NC State faculty.

Now nearly every week he finds himself in the iconic home of some of NC State’s social science departments and its interdisciplinary studies program. That’s because he and other faculty members come together with students from across campus for regular colloquia focusing on some of society’s most challenging issues: those that swirl at the intersection of molecular and population genetics, ecology, policy and ethics.

It’s all part of a shift in campus culture that Gould has seen evolving in recent years – a shift that has crystallized in what’s known as the Chancellor’s Faculty Excellence Program. The program is drawing national attention for its tradition-busting approaches to what is actually one of the university’s strongest traditions – bringing bright minds together to solve big problems.

What’s different now is the university’s emphasis on bringing those bright minds together not just within their areas of expertise but across departments, disciplines and even colleges. The program has spurred the creation of faculty clusters in 20 multidisciplinary areas. It also is bringing 77 new faculty members at NC State to work in these areas.

The new faculty members, established and emerging leaders in their fields, all have a strong commitment to interdisciplinary collaboration. Search committees for these positions include representatives of multiple departments and colleges, and as the candidates are hired, they follow a slightly unconventional path to tenure and promotion.

Gould says that these changes should help faculty members overcome some of the key challenges that they had traditionally confronted when taking on issues requiring complex, multidisciplinary solutions.

“In the past, we thought we were interdisciplinary if we had an entomologist and a geneticist working together,” Gould has said. Today, the faculty cluster he leads, Genetic Engineering and Society, includes not just entomologists and geneticists but scholars in communication, rhetoric, public administration, history, development and environmental economics, biomathematics and molecular biology.

The work of bringing together those diverse disciplines started nearly a decade ago, Gould says, when it became clear that science, especially when it relates to a subject as controversial as genetic engineering, can’t realize its best potential if the general public is left out of the conversation.

With biological scientists and social scientists working together, Gould says, NC State was able to win a major National Science Foundation grant for training graduate students interested in genetic engineering to effectively collaborate across disciplines. That grant helped position Gould and his colleagues for success in the Faculty Excellence Program.

Furthering the cluster’s work will be a new Genetic Engineering and Society Center, co-led by Gould and Dr. Jennifer Kuzma, who was hired through the Faculty Excellence Program. She’s one of the world’s experts on emerging technologies, especially genetic engineering for environment, health and industrial applications.

Also playing key roles in the cluster are two other newly hired faculty. Dr. Zachary Brown focuses on the interactions between economic and biological systems, including the implications of biotechnology innovation in economic development. And Dr. Jason Delborne explores how policymakers and members of the public interact on controversial science topics.

The Global Environmental Change and Human Well-Being cluster has also added new CALS faculty members: Drs. Becky Irwin and Craig Layman, both associate professors in the Department of Applied Ecology. It hired Scott Mills, a forestry and environmental resources professor. William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor Dr. Nick Haddad, who recently joined the CALS faculty from the College of Sciences, co-leads that cluster.

Dr. Heike Sederoff, also a CALS faculty member, leads the Integrated Synthetic and Systems Biology cluster. In this cluster molecular biologists, chemists and engineers collaborate closely to understand and modify living organisms to help eradicate disease and address the globally increasing demands for food and energy in a sustainable environment.

The cluster has hired the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology’s Dr. Ross Sozzani, who recently received an NSF career award; the College of Veterinary Medicine’s Dr. Belinda Akpa, who uses mathematical modeling to understand and improve the effects of pharmaceuticals on human physiology; and the College of Engineering’s Drs. Adriana San Miguel and Albert Keung, who use new synthetic approaches to understand the genetic basis of complex traits.

Cluster members also are teaching an innovative new course in systems biology for students in biology and engineering.

Three other clusters are led by CALS faculty members.

The Microbiomes and Complex Microbial Communities cluster aims to set up an internationally recognized center focused on the analysis and engineering of the microbial communities associated with crops, farm animals, insect pests and the environment. Co-led by Dr. Michael Hyman of the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, this cluster’s research spans molecular microbial ecology; metabolic/proteomic studies of microbial communities; modeling of complex microbial systems; and microbial community engineering.

Jean Ristaino
Dr. Jean Ristaino leads the Emerging Disease Biology and Global Food Security cluster.

In the Emerging Disease Biology and Global Food Security cluster, led by Dr. Jean Ristaino of the Department of Plant Pathology, faculty members are working to improve both local and global efforts to manage emerging pests and pathogens that threaten crop production and lead to food insecurity. The cluster builds on the university’s strong history in international agricultural research and outreach, says Ristaino, a William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor.

“Many emerging armed-and-dangerous plant diseases and pests threaten U.S. and global agriculture, and reported outbreaks have become more severe with trade and changing climate,” she says. “We are well-positioned to tackle these challenges with NC State faculty experts, U.S. government regulatory experts and industry experts in the Triangle area.”

The cluster is bringing leading scholars from around the world to Raleigh in March to synthesize new developments in bioinformatics, geospatial modeling of disease outbreaks and disease biology, as well as the development of new tools, such as drones and cell-phone technology for pathogen detection. Ristaino says that scientific experts in diverse disciplines will strategize with government, industry and global development policy makers to develop the way forward in combating emerging plant diseases.

The cluster is hiring faculty members in four new positions, as will the Sustainable Energy Systems and Policy cluster. In the latter cluster, engineers, economists and policy scholars will work together to make NC State a hub for transdisciplinary research that informs key energy decisions at the state, federal and international levels. The goal is to link technical research with policy, economics and environmental impact assessment to deliver actionable energy solutions, says cluster co-leader Dr. Laura Taylor, of the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics.

– Dee Shore