Research Clusters Share Goals

Directors of East Carolina University’s university-wide research clusters shared their goals and expected outcomes Feb. 21 at Eastern AHEC.

The research groups are intended to enlist faculty and researchers from across the university to work on common interest areas.

Representatives from all seven clusters met to share their short and long-term goals with each other and associate deans of research. The meeting allowed directors to pinpoint research areas each cluster was interested in pursuing, while combining resources with other groups.

Dr. Brandon Morrison, director of strategic initiatives for the division of research, economic development and engagement, said the unique challenges eastern North Carolina faces require an innovative problem-solving approach.

“Innovation seldom originates from isolation,” Morrison said. “By bringing together a network of faculty and researchers with diverse backgrounds and interests, this meeting was the first step in fostering collaboration across clusters and academic disciplines, with the goal of catalyzing joint research projects in the future.”

Cluster goals

Big data and analytics cluster directors Leonard Annetta and Huigang Liang said their near-term priorities included research into bioproducts and bioenergy, health sciences, machine learning and innovative visualization. The cluster intends to house and analyze data that supports rural-based companies in conjunction with ECU’s recently announced partnership with analytics leader SAS.

Burrell Montz and Alex Manda, directors of the energy and natural resources cluster, are focusing their research priorities on biogas and off-shore energy, including wave and wind-powered energy. Faculty will also investigate water quality in eastern North Carolina, surface and groundwater management, wastewater management and storm water management.

ECU’s health behavior cluster will align its goals with human health behaviors and how those behaviors create patterns that can be used to influence patients’ health decisions. Directors Sam Sears and Kim Larson said that their near-term focus is on adolescent risk behaviors, especially those that affect sexual risk, mental health and physical activity.

Marine and coastal cluster directors Reide Corbett and David Griffith believe their initial work will be placed in three broad areas – continental margin resources including non-renewable and renewable energy, cultural resources and biological resources; natural hazards including storms, saltwater intrusion and human vulnerability; and marine and costal health including environmental and human health, health disparities and toxicology.

Mark Mannie, co-director of the human health and disease cluster along with Espen Spangenburg, said his group would focus on increasing understanding of acute and chronic disease in the region, including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and cancers that affect rural residents. Long-term priorities include educating health care workers and patients about these diseases along with new therapies and treatments.

The precision medicine cluster, which focuses on tailoring medical treatment to individual patients, is led by Keith Keene and David Collier. The group plans to determine how health care professionals can classify individuals into subgroups while providing optimal treatment options based on a patient’s susceptibility to a particular disease and their response to treatments.

STEAM directors Shawn Moore and Daniel Dickerson rounded out the presentations, offering three main areas of interest for their cluster. The group will focus their research efforts on teacher preparation and enhancement, college workforce readiness and public understanding of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) content. They plan to accomplish this by creating educational materials, using and introducing others to research-based innovative technologies and tools, and offering faculty engagement outreach opportunities.

The directors said that forming interdisciplinary relationships with faculty members whose research interests align with their goals is a top priority. Faculty members are encouraged to reach out to cluster co-directors for more information.

Last fall, ECU launched seven research clusters, with an eighth planned later this year. Research clusters are part of a formal university strategy to connect interdisciplinary faculty and researchers who might not have met through traditional means. With the clusters, faculty from across ECU can establish partnerships and combine their talents to advance Chancellor Cecil Staton’s Rural Prosperity Initiative and address pressing health, education and economic disparities.