Georgia Tech Awards First Round of Seed Grants to Support Team-Based Research

On August 5, the Office of the Executive Vice President for Research at Georgia Tech awarded a first round of grants meant to assist in the formation and advancement of cross-disciplinary research teams.

The grants come in response to shifting trends in national research and funding priorities. Major funding agencies like the National Science Foundation (NSF) are increasing their support for large-scale, team-based projects, according to Georgia Tech faculty members Robert Butera and Devesh Ranjan.  Successful proposals for these projects often rely on integrating expertise from across disparate areas, including engineering, science, liberal arts, design, and business. 

“A lot of cutting-edge science requires a team approach,” said Butera, who is also vice president for research development and operations.

Academic research faculty have historically worked within a narrower scope, according to Butera. In particular, newer research programs have tended to be focused within one single discipline, with no more than one or two different faculty members involved. 

Far larger projects are becoming more common. One example is a $21.9 million DARPA-funded effort led by Phil Santangelo, professor of biomedical engineering, which seeks to develop gene-based therapeutics for flu and other viruses, including Covid-19. That project directly involves vaccine manufacturers and a broad range of other collaborators.

“That’s a really huge research project,” said Butera. “That's a level of project management complexity and proposal development that faculty are [traditionally] not prepared for.”

Supporting these projects and the new seed grant program is the Office of Research Development, formed in April 2020 and led by Rebecca Terns. The office particularly focuses on supporting proposals for creating large research centers and institutes, like the NSF Engineering Research Center for Cell Manufacturing Technologies, which is led by Georgia Tech faculty and was funded at a $20 million dollar level in September 2017.

Two different types of awards are being offered by the program. One aims to support forming new collaborations, while another focuses on advancing collaborations that already exist. In the recent funding round, nine different proposals for “Forming New Teams” were awarded an average of $38,000 each, and eight different proposals for “Moving Teams Forward” were awarded an average of $83,000 each.

Butera and Terns note that the seed grants will not exclude research efforts of small and medium funding scale. Rather, they are intended to support efforts whenever greater collaboration than usual is required.

“Larger teams are not a requirement,” said Terns. “You want the right size team for the job.”

The seed grant program also aims to support projects that go beyond pure research. For example, many team-based projects require efforts related to education, community engagement, and workforce development.

One group of researchers that won a grant for Moving Teams Forward proposed the development of a radical new approach to semiconductor manufacturing, based on 3-D printing. If that approach wins out, it will require an education plan for an entirely new manufacturing workforce, which the researchers plan to develop using funding from their award.

Another research group that won a grant for Forming New Teams proposed to assemble a team of economists, transportation system engineers, environmental engineers, biostatisticians, and epidemiologists. They plan to use data from the Covid-19 pandemic to find direct correlations between changes in air quality due to reduced pollution and infant health outcomes. The coordination of experts from multiple disciplines will be needed to pin down complex demographic dependencies, according to the researchers’ proposal.

Two more rounds of funding will be offered, with proposal submission deadlines of October 15, 2021 and March 19, 2022. Approximately $750,000 will be available for each round, according to program staff. 

“Large teams are how great scientific advances get made,” said Butera.

Seed Grant Awards for Forming New Teams

  • "Pushing Frontiers of Astrophysics with Application-Driven Advancement of Scientific Machine Learning at Georgia Tech," Laura Cadonati, School of Physics, et. al.
  • "Geo-spatial and economic assessment of the potential development of Bioenergy combined with Direct Air Carbon Capture (BEDAC) in the USA," Matthew Realff, School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, et. al.
  • "Forming a diverse multi-university team for the next USDOT University Transportation Center competition," Kari Watkins, School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, et. al.
  • "Bridging the Gap: Increasing Representation at the Graduate, Postdoc, and Faculty Levels," Stefan France, School of Chemistry and Biochemistry, et. al.
  • "A Panoramic Perspective on Global Sustainability Close to Home: Proposing New Models for Pan-Disciplinary Industry Analyses," Karthik Ramachandran, Scheller College of Business, et. al.
  • "Establishing A Roadmap for Single Cell Sequencing and Analysis at Georgia Tech," Gregory Gibson and Maneesha Aluru, School of Biological Sciences, et. al.
  • "Empowering Local Heroes: Capacity-building of Puerto Rican STEM-focused youth organizations," Catherine Ross, School of City & Regional Planning, et. al.
  • "The Health Effects of Air Pollution: An Interdisciplinary Research Program," Laura Taylor, School of Economics, et. al. 
  • "Domestic Pharma Production Project (DP^3)," Andreas Bommarius, School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, et. al.

Seed Grant Awards for Moving Teams Forward

  • "Preparing a proposal for a $50m Engineering Research Center (ERC) on Sustainable Urban Agricultural Infrastructure Systems," Yongsheng Chen, School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, et. al.
  • "Coastal Equity and Resilience Hub Team," Kim Cobb, School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, et. al.
  • "Bioindustrial Research @ Georgia Tech - Ideas Lab," Pamela Peralta-Yahya, School of Chemistry and Biochemistry, et. al.
  • "Mass Customizable and On-demand Integrated Circuits," Michael Filler, School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, et. al.
  • "Critical Infrastructure, Disaster Resilience, and Megaregion Sustainability," Brian Woodall, School of International Affairs, et. al.
  • "Structure Materials + Manufacturing Laboratories of the Future," Aaron Stebner, George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering, et. al.
  • "From Data to Action: Optimizing Hospitals’ Community Investments to Improve Social Determinants of Health," Arthi Rao, School of City & Regional Planning, et. al.
  • "Moving Teams Forward to Pursue Research on Humans, Disasters and the Built Environment," Adjo Amekudzi-Kennedy, School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, et. al.
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Mordechai Rorvig - Senior Science Writer - Georgia Institute of Technology