New Building to Cultivate Campus Collaboration to Achieve Global Solutions
Last Updated on April 11, 2017 at 12:00 AM
Originally published April 11, 2017
By Lauren Macias-Cervantes
Associate Professor Amy Wagler, Ph.D., understands that the world’s problems are not neatly divided into particular fields of study, and that interdisciplinary collaborations are necessary to advance research.
New Building Encourages Collaboration for Innovation
The statistician co-leads with Azuri Gonzalez, Center for Civic Engagement Director, and Mark Lusk, Ph.D., professor of social work, the Community of Engaged Scholars community of practice at The University of Texas at El Paso and regularly collaborates with her counterparts in education, psychology and biology on research.
Wagler, a Provost’s faculty fellow-in-residence for civic engagement and associate chair of mathematical sciences, uses community engagement projects to help teach her students about math concepts, incorporating research topics from community partners in her classes.
“I’ve worked with a local arts education group (Kids Excel El Paso) and a local land trust (the Frontera Land Alliance) most recently,” she said. “I also involve students in interdisciplinary research projects with faculty from other departments and colleges.”
She is thrilled about the new Interdisciplinary Research Building (IDRB) that will be constructed at the southeast corner of Sun Bowl Drive and University Avenue.
“I am excited about having a space dedicated to interdisciplinary research on campus,” she said. “It is important to have collaborative spaces and research resources for faculty who come from departments with fewer resources. I would love to see space dedicated to inviting community members to campus to plan grants or research projects. This building will address a need for collaboration space in a very effective manner.”
The University broke ground for the IDRB on April 7, 2017, 100 years after the first building was constructed on The University of Texas at El Paso’s current campus. The groundbreaking culminated the 2017 Interdisciplinary Research and Education (IDRE) Week at UTEP, which consisted of presentations from community and faculty researchers and was open to UTEP faculty, staff, students and community stakeholders.
The IDRB will be constructed utilizing $85 million authorized by the Texas Legislature. Planning for this 162,000-square-foot, five-story building started in 2015 when UTEP President Diana Natalicio charged a committee of faculty, staff and students with determining the optimal use of the proposed facility.
“The design of this exciting new IDRB facility is the result of a highly intentional strategy to increase UTEP’s capacity to foster interdisciplinary research collaborations among faculty across the campus,” President Natalicio said. “It responds to growing evidence that research breakthroughs are enhanced by bringing together widely diverse perspectives and expertise. UTEP students who gain experience in this interdisciplinary research environment will have a competitive edge as they move on to postgraduate and career opportunities.”
The first floor, which will be partially underground, will have core facilities and heavy equipment. The second floor, nicknamed “Main Street,” will handle the heaviest pedestrian traffic with a café, building visitor center, galleries to showcase research, meeting rooms and an 80-seat auditorium. The top three floors will have wet and dry labs and interdisciplinary research suites designed for maximum flexibility in size and use.
“This collaborative, state-of-the-art facility is another example of how UTEP is creating a new national research university model,” said Vice President for Research Roberto Osegueda, Ph.D. “With more than 300 faculty and staff engaged in research, millions in funding resulting from a record number of proposals, and invaluable research opportunities for our students, this space will only enhance our contributions toward solutions for the future.”
Collaborating for Innovation
Like Wagler, other UTEP researchers involved in interdisciplinary research are eagerly awaiting the new campus addition. Many are involved in communities of practice at UTEP, groups formed out of similar research interests, such as cyber-security or culture and health among Hispanics.
Gaspare Genna, Ph.D., professor of political science and director of the North American Studies Program, has worked with sociologists, economists and historians on recent interdisciplinary research projects and is currently working with a colleague on how rhetoric affects public opinion.
Genna is an advocate for the Global Reach community and a co-advocate for the Interdisciplinary Research and Education community at UTEP. The expert on global matters has been conducting interdisciplinary research since 2005.
“Different disciplines bring in different theories, tools and findings that you may not have known about without that collaboration,” Genna explained. “We are trained in a specific discipline and all the different theories and the findings associated with that particular discipline, but there are other things going on.”
He said the IDRB is a great investment and shows the commitment the State of Texas has to research. The new facility is igniting interest in students like his who are already engaged in interdisciplinary work.
“Students are very excited about interdisciplinary research because it helps them integrate what they learn in other classes,” Genna said.
Josiah Heyman, Ph.D., professor of sociology and anthropology and director of the Center for Inter-American and Border Studies, is an expert on immigration and border issues and leads the community of practice focused on the two specialties.
The group has looked at connections between social science, health and education in relation to changes in migration and border policy in 2017, while incorporating observations about specific community phenomena. In other cases, Heyman has done interdisciplinary work between environmental and social sciences on water, and between social sciences and public health on Hispanic health disparities. The impact of the collaborative research is evident.
“Generally, it gives a wider range of ideas, resulting in more creativity,” Heyman said.
The border expert says the new facility on campus will help ignite cooperation and eliminate research boundaries.
“UTEP is emerging into research excellence at a good time to avoid the traps and silos of traditional universities,” Heyman said.
Wen-Yee Lee, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Chemistry, is involved in solving complex water problems as part of her interdisciplinary research efforts.
“One of my research areas is focused on the study of water quality regarding micro-pollutants or contaminants of emerging concern (CECs),” Lee explained. “We study the occurrence, fate and transport of CECs, and investigate the impact of those compounds on human health and the ecosystem.”
She explained that as increasing water demand stresses surface and groundwater supplies, water reuse becomes an attractive option, especially in arid and semi-arid areas like Texas.
“Our interdisciplinary research team will develop the capability to analyze and identify complex trace amounts of CECs in our waterways and water treatment facilities,” she said. “We can apply the results to further study the efficiency of CECs removal by treatment processes, and to assess the potential impacts of CECs in water on health and the environment.”
Involving other disciplines is non-negotiable for Lee and her community of practice on water research.
“Pollution knows no boundary,” Lee said. “In order to fully understand the fate, transport and impacts of the pollutants in our environment, we need to use multiple disciplines to provide different expertise for different focuses. For instance, we need chemists to analyze the pollutants, engineers to make design changes to improve the removal of CECs, and law and policy experts to form policies to protect the quality of water resources among various stakeholders.”
She said the new research building is a statement on how UTEP values interdisciplinary research.
“The IDRB is going to be the hub for researchers to gather and develop leading-edge interdisciplinary projects,” she said.
Associate Professor of Psychology Craig Field, Ph.D., agrees.
“It's an essential element of advancing our research capacity and our ability to make unique contributions to the scientific dialogue that will enhance UTEP’s national and international recognition,” Field said. “To succeed in this endeavor, we will need to rise above parochial interests that discourage interdisciplinary collaborations and truly embrace the notion that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
Field leads the Culture and Health community of practice at UTEP and recognizes the value of working across disciplines.
“Working alongside others in the health care discipline has given me a deep respect for the diversity of perspectives and an awareness of the strengths and limitations of those unique perspectives and how they can contribute to one another to create something entirely new and cutting edge,” he said.
“My research aims to fill the gap in treatment needs of people struggling with alcohol problems by meeting them where they are, both physically and psychologically,” he explained. “Specifically, we have evaluated the benefits of brief alcohol interventions in the emergency department and inpatient hospital setting. These interventions enhance the natural behavioral change process and benefit the person, their loved ones, the health care system and the community at large.”
Undergraduate and graduate students from multiple disciplines, including psychology, social work and public health, have contributed to the success of Field’s research from inception to completion of the research, publication, dissemination and implementation of research findings to define best practices.
The importance of involving other disciplines in research is, quite simply, innovation, according to Field.
“Significant advances in science are no longer the domain of the individual scientist,” he said. “Our knowledge within any single discipline has grown in both range and depth. This results in a situation in which no single scientific discipline can possibly advance our knowledge base in significant and innovative ways to yield anything beyond incremental advances. Even within disciplines, no one scholar can effectively obtain and maintain expertise in multiple areas of interest. New discoveries to solve practical problems will necessitate bridging the knowledge base from multiple experts within and across different fields of study. Thus, I anticipate that interdisciplinary approaches to research, practice and training will soon become the new norm.”
The construction of the new facility will be an important step toward achieving Field’s prediction at UTEP. The IDRB will be constructed in phases and is expected to be ready for use in fall 2019.
“This will be exciting to watch,” said Greg McNicol, associate vice president for business affairs – facilities management. “This building will be the first structure on campus developed to support interdisciplinary research teams from colleges across campus. The goal is to involve as many disciplines as possible.”
For more details on the UTEP Office of Research and Sponsored Projects, visit the website.
For more on the IDRB, visit the online page dedicated to the project.