Teams cite progress on presidential research initiative

When he announced his initiative for interdisciplinary research during his fall 2012 inauguration, President Steven Leath had three goals in mind:

  • Put ISU talent to work on big, complex societal problems
  • Grow the university's research enterprise
  • Raise Iowa State's national profile

Seven research teams that were the beneficiaries of presidential funding demonstrated progress on those three fronts at a campus forum last week. Collectively, the teams are tackling big problems, building diverse research groups that cross disciplines and universities, hosting symposia and seeking grants for continued research efforts.

Here are a few highlights of the teams' brief progress reports on the past year.

Crop bioengineering

This project uses a novel genome editing technique to engineer plants. Key targets for the research team are rice, maize, soybean and sorghum. The technology generates bioengineered crops that don't contain transgenes, which should minimize regulatory hurdles for bioengineered germplasm. The research team hosted an international symposium last fall.

Global food security

This worldwide initiative, centered at Iowa State, addresses the challenge of feeding a growing population. Scientists will tackle food security issues at every step in the food chain value chain. Research will focus on both plants and animals.  Eight land-grant universities, four international research institutes, many companies and the Heifer International charity are part of the consortium. A recent two-day symposium brought 185 speakers and attendees from all over the world to Ames.

Systems design of nanovaccines

This systems approach to vaccine design merges advances in nanotechnology and materials sciences with advances in immunology to create a new class of nanovaccines for humans. Led by ISU, the team includes six universities (four in the U.S., two international), several research and government labs and several companies. In one project, researchers hope to develop vaccines that can be kept at room temperature, which would be particularly beneficial in developing countries.

Vaccines against antigenically diverse viruses

Thirty investigators from five scientific disciplines are taking a multistage approach to vaccine development. The initial focus will be on HIV, influenza and porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus. As of January 2014, the team had secured $8 million in grants and contracts with $12 million pending.  It will hold an international symposium in Ames in June.

Computationally engineered plants

The team's vision is to bring together engineers and plants scientists to design and breed better crops that tolerate climate change, produce bigger yields and feed more people. A workshop in Des Moines in late April drew international experts as well as representatives from agribusiness companies and government agencies.

The language of writing in STEM disciplines

The project lays the groundwork for creating a national center of scholarship for the study of language in academic and professional writing in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.  The cross-disciplinary team has applied for two National Science Foundation proposals, the first-ever NSF grants submitted by ISU linguistics.

Identifying potential RNA therapeutic targets in infectious disease

The team's long-term goal is to establish Iowa State as a leader in developing novel RNA-based therapeutic approaches to treat infectious diseases. Researchers will combine new biophysical and data-driven computational approaches to overcome some of the difficulties involved in determining the structure of RNA-protein complexes.

About the initiative

Through the initiative, the first four teams (above) collectively will receive up to $4.5 million over three years to pursue competitive grants to fund large-scale, multidisciplinary research efforts.

The remaining three teams each received up to $100,000 to pursue funds in emerging areas.