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Q&A with MnDRIVE Research Leaders

Various images from MnDRIVE programs

MnDRIVE (Minnesota’s Discovery, Research and InnoVation Economy) is a landmark partnership between the University of Minnesota and the state that aligns areas of university strength with the state’s key and emerging industries to produce breakthrough research that addresses our state and society’s greatest challenges.

In 2013, the Minnesota Legislature authorized $36 million to be invested in four university research areas, and after a year of ramping up, more than 120 projects have been funded, 111 people have been hired and 21 patents and licenses for new technologies have been submitted.

As this groundbreaking effort begins to take shape, these MnDRIVE leaders share what they see as their biggest research challenges and their hopes for what the future holds as a result of this ambitious initiative.

RoboticsMos Kaveh and Nikos Papanikolopoulos
Robotics, Sensors and Advanced Manufacturing

What are some of the biggest challenges research teams in your MnDRIVE core area plan to tackle?

Robotics has long been a topic of fascination by the public and an enabler of modern manufacturing. The well-established manufacturing robots are typically programmed to perform repetitive exact tasks. Emerging and future robotic systems, however, are envisioned to have sophisticated sensors and intelligence based on machine-learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to perceive their environment, adapt, and where necessary, cooperate with, assist and augment human endeavors across an array of applications. These cutting edge systems present a wide range of technical, societal and regulatory challenges the initiative will be addressing.

How do transdisciplinary approaches – working across disciplines and with external partners – impact outcomes?

The technological challenges in robotics, sensors and advanced manufacturing require interdisciplinary collaborations across engineering, computer science and other scientific disciplines. The applications in such areas as precision agriculture, environmental monitoring, intelligent medical systems and surgical robots and critically depend on interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary collaborations among technologists and domain experts.

This initiative is by nature a potential driver of industrial and economic impact. Accordingly, close partnerships with industry are a must for the success of the initiative’s projects. Development of such partnerships with industry and identification of barriers that can be addressed by the initiative’s researchers has been, and will continue to be, a central focus of the initiative.

What new innovation might we not have in the future if not for these investments and approaches?

Major advances in precision agriculture involving both terrestrial and aerial unmanned vehicles and associated sensors built on collaborations with robotics, computer vision, controls, aeronautics, soil and agricultural experts, and industry and crops-related associations is one near term innovation example.

If you could identify one discovery to come out MnDRIVE that you would like to see take hold around the world, what would it be?

It is difficult to point to a specific discovery in the portfolio of this particular initiative. Overall, however, we would be thrilled to point to innovations that will make robotics and intelligent systems improve human well-being, including augmentation of capabilities for the care of an aging population, and sustainable and environmentally friendly agricultural practices and resulting food supplies.

Mos Kaveh, Ph.D. is professor of electrical and computer engineering and the associate dean for research and planning in the College of Science and Engineering. Nikos Papanikolopoulos, Ph.D. is a Distinguished McKnight University Professor of Computer Science and Engineering and director of the Center for Distributed Robotics. Kaveh oversees MnDRIVE Robotics, Sensors and Advanced Manufacturing and Papanikolopoulos chairs the area advisory committee for the initiative.

FoodBrian Buhr
Global Food Ventures

What are some of the biggest challenges research teams in your MnDRIVE core area plan to tackle?

Securing an affordable and safe food supply is a never-ending grand challenge that affects every person on the planet – either directly, for those whose inadequate, inappropriate or contaminated diets lead to poor human health, or indirectly by way of reduced productivity growth, rising food costs and compromised environmental services.

One of our biggest challenges will be increased threats to plants, animals and soils from pests and pathogens, and the resulting impact on human health. For example, aflatoxins, a type of mold, can reduce yields in corn crops and can also lead to health problems if ingested by humans and animals. These challenges are highly complex, so CFANS, the College of Veterinary Medicine and School of Public Health have adopted an approach that requires all global food initiative-supported projects to be integrated across multiple disciplines.

How do transdisciplinary approaches – working across disciplines and with external partners – impact outcomes?

There are no silver bullets for global food security challenges. Addressing these issues will involve both basic and applied sciences across many areas of expertise. For example, scientists are learning how to use new remote-sensing technologies that allow farmers to improve their planting practices and optimize their use of water, pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. That work involves scientists who study soils, insects, plants and economics. As these systems technologies are developed, they must be commercialized and diffused through the private sector. That’s why in addition to requiring all global food ventures-supported projects to take a multidisciplinary approach, all research funded and conducted through this initiative requires a private sector partner investing in the project through effort or funding. Ideally, this approach will enhance how basic research in the field makes its way to benefitting food consumers.

What new innovation might we not have in the future if not for these investments and approaches?

Today’s innovations in food security are in how we approach these system problems. An example of this is the Green Revolution itself. While Norman Borlaug developed high-yielding dwarf varieties of wheat, those varieties would not have had as much impact without the co-invention of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. However, failure at the time to consider environmental and biodiversity consequences eventually led to reduced efficacy and environmental degradation. By using expertise from so many disciplines, we can create more comprehensive and sustainable strategies for global food problems that will result in fewer unintended economic and environmental consequences. And while the private sector often specializes in single aspects, the university’s comparative advantage is that it can conduct research with these funds across a broad platform. This method of approaching global food security challenges simply would not occur without MnDRIVE investments.

If you could identify one discovery to come out of MnDRIVE that you would like to see take hold around the world, what would it be?

Nutritional deficits have huge impacts not only on mortality but also in terms of brain development in children. Often this is a result of limited access to a balanced diet, such as a lack of protein or vitamins that affect brain development. Advances in gene editing and other bio-synthetic methods offer the promise of high-yielding, disease-resistant crops with that help solve those nutritional deficiencies.

Brian Buhr, Ph.D., is dean of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences and a professor of Applied Economics. His expertise is in commodity marketing with an emphasis in livestock markets. He has worked extensively with commodity marketing groups on risk management, value added marketing and the economic impacts of policy and technology. He is a co-chair of the MnDRIVE Global Food Ventures area advisory committee.

EnvironmentMike Sadowsky and Paige Novak
Advancing Industry, Conserving our Environment

What are some of the biggest challenges research teams in your MnDRIVE core area plan to tackle?

Implementing solutions at scale. We’ve identified microorganisms able to remediate agricultural runoff and waters adversely impacted by mining. Our challenge is to bring engineers, soil scientists, microbiologists and industry together to determine which organisms are most effective in meeting specific goals and how systems can be engineered to achieve them.

How do transdisciplinary approaches – working across disciplines and with external partners – impact outcomes?

Working with industrial partners allows us to focus research on the concerns we need to address in order to implement solutions in the real world. Working across disciplines helps challenge deeply held assumptions. It forces us to examine the problem from new perspectives and ask, “Why is this the critical question to ask?” and “What other solutions can we apply to the problem?”

What new innovation might we not have in the future if not for these investments and approaches?

Low cost and sustainable water treatment using microorganisms. Solutions with the potential to benefit not only Minnesota but also to address global environmental challenges.

If you could identify one discovery to come out of MnDRIVE that you would like to see take hold around the world, what would it be?

Microbial resource recovery. We’d love to see a system where we can use microbial systems to remove low concentration nutrients and metals from the waste stream, concentrate them, and send them back to industry and farmers in a usable form. We are also excited about remediation of waste water generated during mining processes and the development of novel microbial solutions to cure a variety of human diseases.

Mike Sadowsky, Ph.D. and Paige Novak, Ph.D. co-chair the MnDRIVE Advancing Industry, Conserving our Environment area advisory committee. Sadowsky is a Distinguished McKnight University Professor in the Department of Soil, Water and Climate (CFANS) and director of the university’s BioTechnology Institute. Novak is a professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geo- Engineering (CSE) and a resident fellow of the Institute on the Environment.

BrainTim Ebner
Discoveries and Treatments for Brain Conditions

What are some of the biggest challenges research teams in your MnDRIVE core area plan to tackle?

Neuromodulation is an evolving technique to treat brain disorders. Typically, it involves delivering electricity to very specific parts of the brain to treat a spectrum of chronic, devastating medical conditions such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, stroke and other neurological disorders.

One of our greatest challenges involves controlling the stimulation so we can tailor treatment to individual patients and prevent adverse side effects. We are trying to develop “closed loop” stimulation in which the amount of stimulation delivered to the patient is adjusted on a continuous basis, depending on variations in the individual patient’s symptoms.

Another area we are investigating is whether neuromodulation can be effective in treating psychiatric disorders like depression or addiction. If we determine that it is, we will build a prototype device or technique that we can ultimately bring to patients suffering from these disabling conditions.

How do transdisciplinary approaches – working across disciplines and with external partners – impact outcomes?

Developing treatments for brain conditions is a multifaceted challenge, so it’s clear we need a transdisciplinary approach. Neuroscientists work on basic mechanisms of how to stimulate or inhibit neurons or parts of circuits. Engineers—electrical, biomedical and material engineers—develop the devices that can perform the sensing and stimulating. Chemists and physicists help understand how we might use new materials in the brain.

We also need industry to help us refine and invest in new technologies and work with clinicians in the community to deliver that treatment to patients. Every step requires different types of expertise to solve a different aspect of the problem, which we can’t do if we’re working in silos.

What new innovation might we not have in the future if not for these investments and approaches?

Ultimately, our hope is to find effective neuromodulation therapies for major psychiatric or neurological disorders that lack effective treatments. Improving the precision of stimulation combined with sensing brain activity will be a significant advancement in treating patients with neuromodulation.

If you could identify one discovery to come out MnDRIVE that you would like to see take hold around the world, what would it be?

We are committed to determining if neuromodulation is an effective treatment for people with psychiatric diseases. If we could identify a treatment for depression or schizophrenia, that would be a major advance. These disorders affect millions of people around the world. If we could deliver a therapy that could help even a fraction of them, imagine the tremendous benefit for patients and their families.

Tim Ebner, M.D., Ph.D. is professor and head of the Department of Neuroscience. He has published extensively on how the brain controls movements and has been funded by the National Institutes of Health for over 25 years. Ebner chairs the MnDRIVE Discoveries and Treatments for Brain Conditions area advisory committee.

Learn more about MnDRIVE.

Erin Dennis

Erin Dennis

Erin is assistant communications director for the Office of the Vice President for Research and senior editor of Inquiry. 

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