One of the most interesting recent developments here at the University of Oregon is the creation of the new Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact, the result of a $500 Million gift from Phil and Penny Knight (of Nike fame). This new mini-campus will be focused on applied / translational research, predominantly related to life-sciences. I’ve been on the “building user group” for the Knight Campus for over a year now; this is winding down, as designs are in place and construction has begun. (The buildings soak up a good amount of the Knight money, plus money from the state.) I’m now on the “Internal Advisory Board,” which reminds me of a set of questions from a meeting I didn’t attend, on what this new campus should do. I thought I’d write down thoughts for my own benefit, and to be able to point to later. (People not at UO can think about this as an exercise, to prepare for suddenly finding themselves with half a billion dollars.)
What should we do?
1. The Knight Campus will focus on a handful of interdisciplinary scientific focus areas during its early years. This approach is designed to focus efforts and resources on the highest-impact opportunities and to demonstrate real near-term progress. What do you feel these scientific focus areas should be?
Think small. Obviously, we should tackle areas that are important, but this in itself isn’t a sufficient criterion. If this adventure is going to have an impact, it needs to select areas in which relatively small-scale effort can pay off. What does “small scale” mean? I can’t remember the exact number, but the Knight Campus will have something like 50 faculty and their associated groups and support staff. This is great, but it’s not a national lab; it’s not even MIT. What’s more, while UO is quite strong in the sciences, it has no engineering departments — no bioengineering, no chemical engineering, etc. (Yes, it’s odd to have a research university with zero engineering in it…) As such it would be foolish to think we’ll make a big splash in many of the obvious grand challenges. We should, therefore, target goals that are important yet tractable, or ideas whose importance is not yet appreciated, so that small steps have a big impact. What could these be? Before getting to that…
Build on existing strengths. One wants the Knight Campus to be new and independent, but it would be silly not to make use of strong research programs at UO and the people associated with them, especially given the issue of scale noted above.
So what should the focus areas be? Here’s a quickly dashed-off list:
- The microbiome, specifically: animal-associated microbial communities. It’s perhaps obvious, and it’s intensely studied at lots of places. However, the microbiome is important, and it’s a local strength. (Disclaimer: I work on this; see e.g. this and this.) Not only does UO have a lot of great microbiome research, recognized by such things as an NIH Center for Excellence in Systems Biology and a new few-million-dollar grant to a few of us, but the paths locally taken aren’t the well-trodden ones. Most notably, developing model organisms like the zebrafish allows creative, well-controlled studies that lead to insights that would be impossible to get from, for example, more standard observational studies of human microbiota.
- Cheap biomedical devices. Assume that biomedical instruments are important. What can a university without engineering departments do in this area? We can devise ways to make cheap, mediocre devices! A lot of work is already being done in this area, motivated in part by the goal of widely deploying diagnostic and treatment tools in poor or poorly serviced areas. There’s a lot of room for improvement, however, and our lack of engineering can force us to be creative. It could also be a good topic for integrating with non-science parts of the campus.
- Materials Chemistry. I won’t write much, but it’s important and a local strength, especially since we have a lot of local groups that are already focused on applications.
- Organoids. These are three-dimensional cell cultures derived from stem cells or cells of a particular tissue or organ, that recapitulate, to some extent, the structure and function of an organ. Like the microbiome, the field is hot and rapidly growing — everyone wants to grow an organ to transplant, for example. Also like the microbiome, I think there are non-standard routes to be explored, e.g. linking organoids to various animal development models, and local expertise (e.g. Annie Zemper, whose lab’s organoids we’ve imaged in the past, and hopefully the future).
- Automation and computation. Fairly obvious, but important and fascinating. Rather than writing more, I’ll just link to a paper that struck my eye recently, on combining imaging, image analysis, machine learning, and cell biology — there’s a lot more neat things to do in this area!
- Promoting Science literacy / Data literacy Admittedly this is an educational goal, not a scientific one. But it’s important, and addressing it meshes with our identity as a liberal arts + sciences school. Also, there are local strengths to connect to, such as our Science Literacy Program, and similar efforts in the School of Journalism.
- Nutria! Nutria are large rodents, rather like beavers. They’re a local invasive species. Why focus on them? Nutria are cool, and few people care about them, compared to beavers. Imagine we had nutria tanks — like large fish tanks, but with nutria. We can have two nutria per tank, with each tank about 20 feet long. People can look at the nutria from the outside. The tanks can be connected by small tunnels for the nutria to travel through. (My nine-year-old suggested this one.)
Let’s be us
How can the Knight Campus differentiate its approach and work from similar initiatives?
I’m puzzled by this question — it would be good to know what “similar initiatives” are meant. It’s also not clear to me why one would want to differentiate our approach from others’. But anyway:
The obvious difference between us and most universities that would try “similar initiatives” is the lack of any engineering programs and the lack of a medical school. We’re largely a liberal arts university, and we should capitalize on this, as mentioned above, with unique (and even odd) small-scale programs; connections to humanities, journalism, etc.; and small, collaborative research labs rather than large mini-kingdoms.
Note also that the nutria tanks would distinguish UO, being truly unique. The Knight Campus buildings will be right next to the millrace that splits off the Willamette River; nutria are abundant there.
What should we do?
What programs can the Knight Campus establish that will yield rapid progress toward our vision and goals?
Vision: Dramatically shorten the timeline between discovery and societal impact through world-class research, training and entrepreneurship in a nimble scientific enterprise.
Goals: Redefine the modern research university by fostering world-changing research unfettered by traditional academic boundaries
- Serve as the educational engine driving the new economy of Oregon
- Transform student education through discovery-driven learning
- Engage the public in the excitement and creativity of scientific research
- Foster diverse perspectives and participation in scientific research
- Improve the health and wellbeing of the citizens of Oregon, the nation, and the world
I didn’t write this list! I’m not fond of grandiose statements like this. In addition to being silly and vague, no one is ever held accountable for them.
But to answer the prompt: I’ll skip the obvious things, like improving training in machine learning and computation. Expanding our excellent applied science Master’s Degree programs is great, and it’s already on the agenda. I’ll also not write anything about entrepreneurship, since I know nothing about it, and I’m increasingly confused about how much this sort of activity involves meaningful output and how much involves “looking busy” and creating pyramid schemes.
With that aside, if I were in charge, I would:
- Hire strange people, working on odd things. Ideally, junior people who can’t coast on past successes, and whose ideas are new enough that we can’t tell how they’ll work out.
- Integrate non-science/technology people with the Knight Campus, e.g. by embedding economists, historians, etc., in the buildings. Even one rotating “humanities fellow” would be great.
- Involve undergraduates. The Knight Campus isn’t going to include undergraduate education in the near future. This should change as soon as possible. At the very least, offer abundant and well-mentored research opportunities for undergraduates. Try high school students, too, to improve the too-small number of science major undergraduates UO gets.
- Install an elephant skeleton. Really.
How much is this post worth?
It was fun to write this; more fun, I would bet, than the six hour meeting I didn’t go to about these questions. We’re apparently paying external consultants to shepherd the discussion of these topics. To be blunt, I find this appalling. You, however, get to read this for free! I hope it might be useful, or at least a bit interesting.
The end result of my chemical synapse painting mentioned in the last post.
— Raghuveer Parthasarathy. September 26, 2018