At a 2003 Energy & Nanotechnology Conference at Rice University, the noted scientist and Nobel Prize winner R.E. Smalley presented a list entitled “Top 10 Problems of Humanity for Next 50 Years."
The problems included the following:
These problems have a few characteristics in common. They are challenging and complex, have a high degree of uncertainty, and do not fit neatly into one disciplinary silo. They require multiple perspectives and a healthy dose of innovation.
However in the 1990s, a group of academicians at Virginia Tech conceptualized an institute committed to cutting-edge research in developing solutions to pressing problems that span different disciplines. The idea gained momentum and led to the creation of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS) on July 1, 2006.
"The concept of such an institute to act as a catalyst for interdisciplinary research and as an agent of innovation is truly visionary," said Roop Mahajan, its director since 2006.
To fulfill its mission, the institute has organized its research at the intersection of a few technologies — nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science — to develop solutions for a sustainable future.
Much of this research is conducted under the umbrella of the following eight research areas, or thrusts:
“A unifying theme for these thrust areas is the harnessing of cutting-edge science and technology — current and next generation — to develop solutions for a sustainable future,” Mahajan said. “Many of our research projects — sustainable water infrastructure management, sunlight to bio-fuels, targeted delivery of nano-medicine, novel nano-materials and their composites, autonomous vehicles — are all powered by the theme of sustainability.”
Operationally, ICTAS forms interdisciplinary teams of researchers from across the campus. As part of its effort to cultivate and nurture these teams, the institute provides them with collaborative laboratory and office space in one of its four buildings and state-of-the-art equipment.
A star among the facilities, the Nanoscale Characterization and Fabrication Laboratory, offers more than $10 million in specialized equipment and instrumentation support to fabricate, characterize, and manipulate material at the nanoscale. In addition, seed monies are provided to allow teams to grow interdisciplinary research — not in a straight line but in an upward spiral.
For example, the institute established the Center for Naval Systems to grow Virginia Tech as a leader in national security research. Since the center began in June 2009, collaborative relationships have been established with the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren, the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, the Naval Surface Warfare Center Crane (as a sub-contractor to Gryphon Technologies), and the Space and Naval Warfare System Center Atlantic with total contract ceilings of more than $15 million over five years.
Another example of the institute-led collaborative research is the formation of the Center of Excellence for Sustainable Water Infrastructure Management. Formed in 2009, this center has leveraged seed funding from ICTAS to gain support of external sponsors for collaborative research of more than $750,000.
This collaborative research focuses in a number of areas such as water chemistry, sensor technology, nanotechnology, information technology, material science, construction technology, green engineering, sustainable and innovative technologies, renewal engineering, and infrastructure asset management.
In addition to growing leading-edge research in the selected discovery domains, the institute is also committed to the promotion of “blue skies” thinking, to identify the next generation science and technology. It regularly makes investment in high-risk/high-reward research and looks for so-called disruptive technologies that could be as transformative and powerful as inventions of the recent past such as the Internet or the laser.
An editorial in Science magazine noted, “The time is upon us to recognize that the new frontier is the interface, wherever it remains unexplored.” ICTAS resonates with this observation and is well-poised to forge interdisciplinary partnerships to deliver new discoveries and technologies and inspire young minds.
Read about the Research Institutes of Virginia Tech.
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