Cross-campus teams build OneU research collaborations

What do an anthropologist studying prehistoric shoes and a mechanical engineer specializing in biomechanics have in common? Or a professor of music and an atmospheric sciences researcher? A gender studies professor and a pediatrician?

The answer: The 1U4U Innovation Funding Initiative.

With nearly $900,000 in seed grants, the first 1U4U “collaboration incubator” has generated 33 interdisciplinary research projects that bring together often siloed faculty members in cross-campus teams (https://1u4u.utah.edu/).

Over the next year, the teams will use grants ranging from $15,000 to $30,000 to explore new ideas for research and scholarship, develop new knowledge, and foster cross-disciplinary teamwork. The goal, says Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Dan Reed, is to build lasting academic and personal connections across the university’s academic and health sciences campuses.

“These are ‘Renaissance teams,’ which bring together faculty members who might not ever have known of each other’s existence,” said Reed. “We’re pulling together academic faculty— from English and Engineering, Fine Arts and Medicine, Music and Architecture—to work collaboratively on innovations that will improve our understanding of the world around us, reshape our perspective on complex issues, and boost health and wellness.”

Alex Greenwald, an assistant professor of anthropology and curator of ethnography at the Natural History Museum of Utah, says the flexibility of the 1U4U grants helped her put together a cross-campus team that will study the biomechanics of ancient runners using prehistoric footwear and experimental work. Volunteers will run on treadmills wearing sandals made of yucca fibers that replicate the footwear housed at the museum to generate predictions of use wear associated with running and walking.

“The initiative allowed me to build an unusually interdisciplinary team of researchers to pursue the preliminary phases of a novel, and potentially high-risk, project,” Greenwald said.

Greenwald’s team includes Andrew Anderson, from the School of Medicine; David Carrier, from the College of Science; and Andrew Merryweather, from the College of Engineering. They will recreate the biomechanics of ancient human runners, in part, to better understand the prevalence of running among the ancestors of Diné and Puebloan peoples—both Native American populations in the southwestern United States.

Other teams will use grants ranging from $15,000 to $30,000 to work together to:

  • Develop non-drug therapies for epilepsy and seizures using atmospheric change data and personalized playlists
  • Finetune one of the steps in mass production of heparin anticoagulants using more sustainable “super critical” carbon dioxide. The anticoagulants currently are derived from over 700 million pigs each year.
  • Use the Utah Population Database to compare hospice care treatment for those with Alzheimer’s disease and cancer. Hospice care currently is benchmarked to cancer, but not dementia, so patients may experience delayed admission.
  • Build on the success methods of an undergraduate transfer program to boost student diversity on the university’s health sciences campus.

The University of Utah’s senior vice presidents—Academic Affairs’ Reed and U of U Health’s Michael Good—recognized the winning projects at a symposium Feb. 24.

“We are one of only a few universities nationwide to have a major health science operation and a tier 1 academic research university sharing the same physical footprint,” said Michael Good, Senior Vice President of Health Sciences. “The 1U4U funding initiative shows us that our potential to address society’s most pressing needs is much greater if we work together than if we exist as separate entities.”

Gender Studies Assistant Professor Ana Antunes pulled together a team from the Schools of Medicine and Sociology to design a sex education course for elementary school students with refugee and immigrant backgrounds using a human rights approach under United National Population Fund guidelines.

“The grant will allow us to try out new approaches to sex education and maturation for communities that do not often have their needs addressed in mainstream programs,” Antunes said. “It forced me to think outside of my discipline and find new ways to approach the issue.”

Another team will create a diverse cohort of faculty and students, including members from the Department of Theatre, the Global Change and Sustainability Center, and the Dark Skies program, to learn about dark skies, earth science, and environmental challenges. The art and design collective All My Relations will join the cohort for a series of experiences as they develop “Revolving Sky,” a new performance piece focused on astronomy from an indigenous perspective.

UtahPresents Director and Assistant Dean for Art & Creative Engagement Brooke Horejsi says the university’s history of research and curriculum in environmental arts, humanities and science, combined with its unique geographic location, make it the ideal place to be a thought leader for artists and creative thinkers to find interdisciplinary solutions.

“We are positioned to help craft a different view of humanity’s current relation to nature and responsibility to the future of not only the planet, but also its inhabitants,” she said.

The teams will report their results at a symposium in a year.