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Focus SC: New institutes will use cutting-edge research to solve South Carolina problems

Julius Fridriksson stands outside with greenery in the background

In May, the University of South Carolina announced that it will invest $10 million over the next four years in five new interdisciplinary research institutes that will address some of the Palmetto State’s biggest challenges, including health, education and water quality.

Each of the new research institutes will receive $500,000 per year over four years from USC’s Research Institutes Funding Program. In addition to creating multidisciplinary teams focused on innovative solutions, the centers are expected to attract significant federal grants.

USC Today talked with Vice President for Research Julius Fridriksson about the genesis and goals of the initiative.

Tell us how this program came about.

President Michael Amiridis and myself are very much focused on promoting science that helps South Carolina. But obviously, we don’t want to be prescriptive as to what kind of research happens on our campus I mean, 99 percent of the research that happens here starts at a grassroots level through our faculty. But in this case, we wanted to do something that could help us create large groups of scientists who would work together. And if the topics were appropriate, they would have something to do with South Carolina problems that we would be solving. At the same time, we want these projects to be gearing us up to be more competitive for large-scale federal funding.

How did you go about selecting the institutes for funding?

We asked faculty to write proposals. Initially, I think we got 42 preliminary applications, which is a lot. So, we got a panel of 10 members of the national academies — National Academy of Science, National Academy of Medicine or National Academy of Engineering — to review those 42 applications. We cut the number down to 12 groups that were offered to submit full applications in a second round. Then, we had the same panel go over those applications, and in the end, we selected five.

So it sounds like the research projects were still at that “grassroots level.”

Absolutely. We didn't go in saying these have to be South Carolina problems that you have to fix. It was first and foremost the quality of the science, the cohesiveness of the group, the likelihood of getting external funding, mainly federal funding, because that’s very important. Those were factors that came into play when we looked at the proposals. But it just so happens that the five institutes that we did fund are very much South Carolina-centric.

The one on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education in rural areas out of the College of Education, led by Matt Irvin. That’s an area that we know we have a huge need to improve STEM education, especially in rural areas of South Carolina. So, they’re trying to figure out what are new approaches to improve the current state of affairs. That was a large group that also included folks from the College of Engineering and Computing and the School of Public Health.

One is focused on cardiovascular disease, and is led by Clinton Webb. Cardiovascular disease is rampant in South Carolina. So, we’re trying to understand both the mechanisms and ways that we can actually cure it.

Another one is on water quality led by Tammi Richardson, who is the chair of the Department of Biological Sciences. Water quality, certainly around issues like the flooding we saw here in Columbia a few years back, is another area we know is going to have significant impact in South Carolina.

The other two — infectious diseases led by Melissa Nolan out of the School of Public Health and semiconductors led by Asif Khan out of the College of Engineering and Computing — are certainly areas that are important, not just in South Carolina, but nationally and internationally as well. So, those were the five were selected in the end. I feel very good about the topics that we selected.

Do you have a timeline about when these institutes will begin to yield some results?

I would expect within the next two years we will see some initial research get up and going and hopefully get results from those studies maybe at the end of two years. Soon thereafter, we certainly expect that they will be putting together large-scale grant applications to federal agencies. That was one of the criteria for application. You had to tell us, ‘This is the type of grant program that we’re going to apply for.’ So we would expect that in years three and four that those applications are going to be put together. And I have no doubt that every one of them is going to be highly competitive.

And when you say large scale, what is large scale?

It depends on the field. For anything in the health sciences, a grant application somewhere in the $8 million to $10 million range; in the basic sciences, maybe $5 million to $7 million. And when I say large scale, it’s not just about the money, but also the breadth and depth of the science. We expect these are going to be very collaborative. So they might be working on a single problem, but they’re going to be coming at it in an interdisciplinary way, working from different directions to solve the same problem.

As a significant researcher yourself, do you think you bring some insights into some of the challenges these institutes are going to face?

Yeah, I'm very lucky in that I have what is called a program project grant from the National Institutes of Health, which is a center grant. That grant has now been funded for about $25 million since we started in 2016. We have about 10 senior-level investigators in different fields and, including students, probably 40 to 50 individuals in total. That’s also one of the nice things I see coming out of this institutes program: It provides a community where students can learn and thrive. Just looking at my group, the number of students that get involved is on a much larger scale than you would see with an individual investigator. These are more like communities what we’re used to, which is single investigator, single lab.

All of these institutes are housed at the University of South Carolina, but is there collaboration beyond our walls?

I would say most of them collaborate with other universities even though the bulk of the work happens here. I can give you an example. Melissa Nolan, who is the principal investigator on the infectious disease project, just came back from El Salvador, talking about a collaborative project on infectious diseases that are tropical. So these are not just national collaborations, but also can be international.

Do you see a need down the road to expand this program to create new institutes? Or do you think this number is good for the next five to 10 years?

I think we’ll focus on these for now because we put so many resources into this. This is not something that you can do frequently just because it’s expensive. But I expect the return on our investment will be fantastic. That said, we only have so much capacity at any given time. I would say we will see how these turn out then maybe see about the future. I would be very surprised if this is the last time we do this.

How does having that South Carolina impact improve our chances for federal funding?

There are certainly problems in South Carolina that are, for lack of a better word, attractive to the federal government because they know they need to fix them. Let me give you an example — poor rural health. Researchers in public health are encouraged now to include participants from rural areas in our studies that are funded by the NIH. So having these kinds of institutes that focus on South Carolina problems — there’s no doubt in my mind it makes those projects more attractive for federal funding. For example, most clinical trials that happen in the United States happen in major metropolitan areas. They’re not happening in Salkehatchie or Allendale. Having us get access to the broader population for some of these institutes, like the water one, the infectious disease one, the education one, I think that greatly enhances our chances for federal funding.

Is there anything more folks need to know about the university’s commitment to solving South Carolina’s problems?

We’ve never done anything at this scale, this wide reaching. I do think that for our faculty, there are a lot of opportunities to get involved as well as our students. So even if those institutes are not a perfect fit for what they do, if they’re searching for collaborators, these institutes provide a broad tent.

We don’t want them to lose their focus, but at the same time, we want them to grow both with regards to breadth and depth. So get better at fixing the problem you’re targeting, but also go beyond it.

I do think that the five principal investigators on each one of the institutes are world class. I have high hopes and I have no doubts that they will meet those hopes.