The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded five jurisdictions nearly $20 million each through the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), which builds research and development capacity in states that demonstrate a commitment to research but have thus far lacked the levels of investment seen in other parts of the country.
The new EPSCoR Research Infrastructure Improvement (RII) Track-1 awards will bolster science and engineering academic research infrastructure in Alabama, Kansas, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Wyoming. Each award will support fundamental research and education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. The awards will also promote workforce development in areas relevant to the jurisdictions' vital interest.
"These investments by NSF promise to yield fundamental understanding in research areas of regional and national importance while catalyzing new educational and training opportunities for students and researchers," said NSF Director France Córdova. "This year's EPSCoR awards continue to demonstrate the vitality of scientific inquiry and innovation, which is present in universities and research laboratories across the nation."
EPSCoR is a program designed to fulfill the Foundation's mandate to promote scientific progress nationwide. Currently, 24 states, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam are eligible to compete for EPSCoR funding. Through this program, NSF establishes regional partnerships with government, higher education and industry that effect lasting improvements in a state's or territory's research infrastructure and research and development capacity — and therefore its academic competitiveness.
An overarching goal of the five new awards is to develop the scientific foundation and workforce capacity for transitioning towards a knowledge-based economy.
Kansas and Wyoming will both embark on ambitious surveys of microbiomes to better understand and address environmental change, and the economic implications of such changes. Wyoming's project has potential to improve management of rangeland and water resources, enhance agricultural productivity and advance efforts to reclaim sites disturbed by resource extraction. Knowledge generated by Kansas' project will influence agriculture, soil condition and water quality.
Alabama and South Carolina will engage in different areas of basic research with similar goals: developing innovative approaches for producing new, technologically advanced materials with the potential for commercialization in areas ranging from food safety and water treatment to medicine.
Rhode Island will leverage prior investments in coastal wetlands and marine monitoring infrastructure to address the complex interactions between the environment and ecological factors in Narraganset Bay. The project will develop new sensor technologies, deploy new observing systems, and develop complex predictive models for understanding and reacting to environmental change and pollution in the bay.
The names of the institutions managing the awards, principal investigators overseeing the research and a summary of each award are provided below.
ALABAMA – University of Alabama in Huntsville, Gary Zank
The Alabama project focuses on understanding the processes and interactions of low-temperature plasmas (collections of electrically neutral atoms, molecules and partially or fully ionized particles) and use this knowledge to develop technologies for applications ranging from aerospace and manufacturing to food safety. The research includes theoretical, computational and experimental approaches to understand, predict and control low-temperature plasmas and the preparation of novel materials with unique electronic, optical, mechanical and biological properties. Potential applications include the development of plasma treatments for prosthetic materials, and the disinfection of plant seed and food. The project will share resources and leverage partnerships among Alabama institutions of higher learning and industries, establish national and international collaborations and support industry internship applications for graduate and undergraduate students.
KANSAS – University of Kansas Center for Research, Inc., Kristin Bowman-James
Kansas will undertake a comprehensive survey of plant, soil and aquatic microbiomes and their environmental characteristics to assess the ability of microbiomes to influence crop production, soil condition and water quality. Microbiome science is the study of the combined genetic material from all microorganisms present in a particular environment. Kansas is an ideal natural laboratory for this project, due to the large gradients in precipitation and land use across the state. The research will address ecological questions, including societal challenges such as sustaining agricultural production while maintaining soil and water quality.
RHODE ISLAND – University of Rhode Island, Geoffrey Bothun
The University of Rhode Island (URI) will establish the Consortium for Coastal Ecology Assessment, Innovation and Modeling (C-AIM) to coordinate research, education and workforce development across Rhode Island in coastal marine science and ecology. The research will improve understanding of the microorganisms in Narraganset Bay, the largest estuary in New England and home to important ecosystem services that benefit fisheries, recreation and tourism. Researchers will develop new models to predict pollution and harmful algal bloom events in the bay, build new sensors for nutrients and pollutants, and provide data and tools for stakeholders in the state. The project's observational capabilities will be coordinated in an open platform for researchers across Rhode Island, providing real-time physical, chemical and biological observations — including live streaming to mobile devices.
SOUTH CAROLINA – University of South Carolina, Prakash Nagarkatti
The South Carolina project will advance fundamental knowledge of complex materials while simultaneously working toward the development of products with valuable commercial applications, such as improved lasers, water treatment and regenerative medicine. The project will accelerate the development of novel materials, combining computational and experimental methods to predict and test materials properties and apply that knowledge to enable more targeted design of new materials. This project will focus on intelligently designed optical and magnetic materials, polymers and materials that respond to stimuli and material that can interact and become integrated with living tissue.
WYOMING – University of Wyoming, Brent Ewers
This project will study microbiomes across the state of Wyoming to help predict how different regions respond to environmental disturbances. The research aims to provide policy makers with tools to better manage natural resources. Microbial organisms are ubiquitous and abundant in soil and aquatic environments. One teaspoon of soil may contain over a billion bacteria, belonging to thousands of distinct species. These organisms play essential roles in cycling nutrients, decomposing organic matter and determining the fate of pollutants released by human activities. Samples of microbes will be collected from thousands of sites that differ in their local climate, land use and plant life. The samples will be analyzed to better understand the environmental roles of the microbes and their responses to changes in precipitation, soil properties and land use. Species composition and ecological relationships to the ecosystem will be determined using DNA, RNA and protein sequencing. Statistical methods will be used to uncover the relationships between microbes and how the overall ecosystems function.