Aisiku Interdisciplinary Grants Encourage Collaboration to Move Science Forward

December 5, 2019
By: Kristen O'Reilly

Thanks to funding from the Aisiku STEM Center, two interdisciplinary research projects are demonstrating how collaboration among faculty can move science forward. “It’s an exciting way to support STEM research and provide a space for all disciplines to work together,” says Linda Larrivee ’76, M.S. ’80, Ph.D., dean of the School of Education, Health, and Natural Sciences. “No one works in a vacuum. Bringing together faculty from different departments is a great way to further knowledge in many fields.”

For one Aisiku Interdisciplinary Research Project, biology and chemistry faculty are analyzing newly made variations of a natural agent with the potential to combat antibiotic-resistant infections. Assistant Professor Weichu Xu, Ph.D., and Professor Margaret Kerr, Ph.D., both from chemistry, and Associate Professor Roger Greenwell, Ph.D., from biology are working together on “Synthesis of thielavin derivatives as antimicrobial compounds for disease treatment.”

“This is an example of the collaborative nature of research today,” says Greenwell. “For this specific project, it is important to develop new antimicrobials because there is an ever-increasing number of microbes that are resistant to our current antibiotics. One research area of promise is using chemistry to generate new versions of compounds that may increase their use against antibiotic-resistant bacteria. We are each combining our areas of expertise to push these ideas into reality.”

The other project is a proposal to use augmented reality to allow students with disabilities to virtually experience field work, an essential part of the learning process. Professor William Hansen, a geographer and chair of the Earth Environment and Physics (EEP) Department is working with Professor Steven Oliver, chair of the Biology Department, and Assistant Professor Nabin Malakar of EEP, a physicist who is developing remote sensing-based visualizations on temperature and land cover.

In total, five students are working closely with faculty on these projects, getting a firsthand look at how the collaborative process works.

“Students see faculty learning from each other and growing. They don’t always see the collaborative process and how that works,” says Professor Daron Barnard, Ph.D, director of the Aisiku STEM Center. “It also helps students understand how the field they are pursuing interacts with the rest of the STEM fields.”

“The students we are working with in each of our laboratories are gaining experience in chemistry research, drug development, and antimicrobial screening methods,” says Greenwell. “This funding fulfills two missions: pushing science forward and engaging students in scientific research.”

Parameters in the grant program are intentionally flexible, allowing for multiple-year projects. “There’s no end date for the funding because sometimes science doesn’t work that way,” says Larrivee.

Investigators are expected to share their findings outside of the Worcester State community, typically by presenting at a regional or national conference or by being published in an academic journal. In addition, the relatively modest grants can fund pilot studies intended to attract larger funding. Faculty collaborators can come from either school, but the principal investigator must be from the School of Education, Health, and Natural Sciences.

“I continue to be impressed by the quality of research being done at Worcester State,” says Imoigele P. Aisiku ’92, M.D., for whom the STEM Center is named. “I’m happy to see these grants are encouraging the types of collaborations that show how the sciences complement each other.”

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