Drought. Dying honeybees. Incurable diseases.
Today’s headlines are full of complex problems with global implications. They not only challenge political leaders, but the academic community as well. Researchers at Cal Poly Pomona know that searching for solutions will increasingly occupy their time.
“There’s going to be a lot of research in science, engineering, agriculture — actually in all the technical fields,” says Frank Ewers, Cal Poly Pomona’s associate vice president for research. “Because of the biomedical applications of genetic engineering, there are innumerable biological discoveries that will impact our ability to grow crops or fight against diseases.”
Cal Poly Pomona, with its polytechnic identity and emphasis on practical applications and theory, is well positioned for this new age of research.
“Engineering will take on increased importance because of the many issues related to water, energy and the creation of infrastructure with new, improved materials,” says Vilupanur Ravi, professor and chair of the chemical and materials engineering department.
“The importance of water as a vital resource cannot be underestimated, and, with a state of drought being declared in California, it is now on everyone’s radar,” he says. “Managing this precious resource is thus a grand challenge for the engineering community.”
Energy production is also a key research field, especially in light of global climate change and the controversy over hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” in natural gas extraction. Fracking presents additional concerns because of its potential impact on water supplies.
“Alternative energy is obviously a compelling challenge that will require basic and applied research,” Ewers says. “Some of that may involve biology, but there’s also chemistry, engineering, agriculture and many other disciplines, including public policy.”
The evolution of faculty from educators to teacher-scholars positions the university to play a role in cutting-edge research and provides students with opportunities they might not have had in the past.
“Students majoring in the STEM disciplines need research experience. To do that you have to have faculty involved in the field, integrating research into the classrooms,” says Biology Professor Jill Adler-Moore. “Here at the CSU, we have come to the reality that we have to be teacher-scholars. Otherwise, we’re not going to educate the next generation of STEM students.”
Faculty members are now aided in their research by the revolution in data management and analysis, especially in genomics, biology and chemistry.
“We have instrumentation now that was not available previously that we can use to generate large amounts of data,” Adler-Moore says. “That exponentially increases what we can achieve in one experiment.”
Data analysis will allow researchers to increase the scope and depth of experiments, create a variety of unique models, and project the outcomes, she says.
In addition, many higher-profile research universities have limited space and funding to take on new faculty members, which works to Cal Poly Pomona’s advantage, Adler-Moore says.
“We get all these great faculty to come here.”
Moving forward, the biggest challenge facing researchers at Cal Poly Pomona is financial backing.
Although the state remains the largest source of funding to the CSU, most goes to support the teaching mission, Ewers says, though he notes that grants are available.
“We are eligible for many grants to train students in research. Our student population is a strength in that it resembles Southern California,” Ewers says. “There are a lot of underrepresented groups in the population. We’re successful when they get their degrees and go on to do research.”
The federal government provides funding for research, but those funds took a big hit with the automatic spending cuts (the sequester) last year — cuts that were only partially reversed later, he says.
The United States needs to keep pace with China and other countries that are investing in research, Adler-Moore says.
“We have to do the same thing, otherwise we’ll lose out on leadership in many fields,” she says. “Academics are going to say, ‘Let’s go someplace else, because the United States is not going to support us.’”
Private funding and gifts are another area of opportunity, Ewers says.
“We’re doing very well compared to other CSUs in terms of capital campaigns, but I think we have a lot of potential to do much better,” he says. “Private universities have been on this track for much longer than we have. We have to catch up.”
One of Cal Poly Pomona’s strengths is the faculty’s ability to work together across disciplines on projects, publishing research and getting grants, both Ravi and Adler-Moore say.
“However, for sustained success, we need to invest in our campus capabilities, especially in terms of cutting-edge research equipment like electron microscopes,” Ravi says. “And we need to dedicate space and technical support for research.”
“We’ve got really good faculty and great students,” Adler-Moore says. “They’re going to push for more and put more of an emphasis on research. That’s where our future lies. Students need to learn not only to memorize facts, but to use them in a research setting. It’s our responsibility as faculty to help them do that.”