Engineering research: Collaboration and creativity unleash tomorrow's discovery

It will take more than a single Thomas Edison to create the treatments and technologies necessary to solve the world's biggest challenges. It will take teams of Edisons, Curies and maybe even a few Einsteins.

The real question for research universities across the country and around the world is: How do you inspire and manage the collective brainpower of dozens of researchers from a range of fields and interests to make these discoveries?

For decades, Penn State has been a national leader in creating the organizational, physical and philosophical space for researchers across all backgrounds and disciplines to collaborate and create. The Millennium Science Complex, which opened in 2011, is one of the University's most recent, and now one of the most visible, examples of its commitment to interdisciplinary research.

Carlo Pantano, director of the Materials Research Institute and Distinguished Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, says the building itself was designed to bring together teams of researchers who have a variety of expertise and backgrounds to tackle projects that may one day create products or treatments that show up anywhere, from electronic stores to cancer laboratories.

Researchers from five academic colleges and 15 departments from the physical, engineering and life sciences are part of the Materials Research Institute, which along with the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, has found a new home in the Millennium Science Complex.

Pantano holds up an iPhone and points out that materials engineers, electronics experts and computer scientists all likely played a role in designing smart phones like the iPhone, which now have about the same computing power that once required a whole laboratory full of computers. It would take the combined ingenuity of an array of engineers and scientists to get that amount of computing power in one small device, he adds.

"The key to the iPhone, or any device like it, is managing all the stuff that makes it work," says Pantano. "The way the glass is used in the display, the way computer chips are embedded into that display, and the way the chips are connected, all of those things that make these devices require different types of expertise, different types of researchers."

Before architects even had a chance to sketch plans for the building, Pantano and his colleagues began discussing how they could facilitate collaboration. Interactions between the researchers and students in the building may seem informal and unpredictable, but designing the space to facilitate those interactions was not.

"Collaboration depends a lot on the environment, but it also depends on how you promote that environment," Pantano says. "For example, that's why you'll see students sitting with other students here."

At the complex, graduate students from different disciplines are grouped together in common areas to increase the possibility of collaborations. This arrangement goes against conventional seating that sequesters graduate students into offices near their faculty adviser. Pantano says that that type of setup tends to restrict collaboration.

Another way that the facility itself inspires collaboration is through the use of shared equipment. It's not just an economical way to distribute the tools necessary to conduct research, according to Josh Stapleton, operations manager of the Materials Characterization Lab at the complex.

Stapleton says that when researchers from various fields use the same leading-edge instrumentation, they can compare notes with each other and with staff members who operate the devices. The staff can also use their expertise to help scientists integrate the instruments into their own areas of research, according to Stapleton.

"Staffing our laboratories with experts on the instrumentation in the lab allows researchers to add new tools to their tool box," he explains. "If a researcher encounters new problems and their traditional tools are no longer working, they can access staff members who have expertise to offer them new approaches."

The facility includes the latest research equipment. For example, crews recently installed a Titan Cubed scanning and transmission electron microscope, one of the few of its kind in the country. The microscope allows researchers a chance to investigate the world at the atomic and nanoscale level.

Stapleton says that there are other ways to bring researchers together and it only costs a small bribe of donuts, bagels and coffee. The Millennium Café is held each Tuesday morning and usually includes two 15-minute talks by researchers.

Stapleton notes that one of the mandatories for speakers is to suggest areas for possible collaboration, or areas where they need help from researchers.

"When you are a part of a University that is so big, you might not know the resources and the help that is available," he says. "It is a symptom of big."

Collaboration is not restricted to Penn State researchers in MSC, or even the University. Researchers from across the campus and from other universities work with the faculty and students.

Pantano says that researchers from business and industry have access to the facilities. Not only do these researchers have a chance to work with some of the brightest minds at Penn State and access cutting-edge equipment available, but they are also bringing in new ideas that inspire deeper discussions and more creative thinking.

"When we talk about engineering, we usually don't talk about creativity," says Pantano. "But engineering is about being creative -- and sometimes -- it's about making something out of nothing."

"Companies come here to join our researchers at the center and send their scientists to learn from our researchers," he notes. "That not only gives these researchers a chance to work with us, but our students have the opportunity to make connections."

Pantano is beginning to see dividends on this investment in integration and collaboration. Researchers from both the Huck Institutes of Life Sciences and the Materials Research Institute are already collaborating on big projects. Engineers and plant biologists in the Center for Lignocellulose Structure and Function, for instance, are studying the nanostructure of plant cell walls. Their discoveries may lead to more sustainable energy sources, such as biofuels. More than a dozen researchers and engineers from a range of disciplines are studying the brain to find treatments for epilepsy, discover materials for brain interfaces and nerve regeneration and map the structure of the brain.

"It's not the big things that make me think we're on the right track," Pantano says. "It's the conversations I hear between faculty members while I am walking around the building or listening to students talking about projects while they're at the water cooler."


Carlo Pantano is director of the Materials Research Institute and Distinguished Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, cgp1@psu.edu. Josh Stapleton is operations manager of the Materials Characterization Lab at the Millennium Science Complex, jjs366@psu.edu.

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Last Updated June 19, 2013