Boise State crosses research boundaries with VIP program

Graduate student Peter Bumbarger studies the test structure for a plasma medicine experiment at Boise State University.
Graduate student Peter Bumbarger studies the test structure for a plasma medicine experiment at Boise State University. Boise State University

We live in a messy world, with messy problems that transcend solutions from a single source. That’s why researchers from all academic backgrounds are increasingly partnering to solve complex problems dealing with the environment, water, food, land, materials, data, cancer and much more.

As opposed to a traditional multidisciplinary project, where two or more departments cooperate but stay within their respective fields, transdisciplinary teams blend their values, ideas and implementation strategies, sparking new mental models and future disciplines.

This idea of crossing over traditional boundaries has led to exciting new programs in universities across Idaho and beyond, including several at Boise State. These include a doctoral program in biomolecular sciences where projects embrace physics, chemistry and biology; and a materials science and engineering program that includes electrical and computer engineering, mechanical and biomedical engineering, physics, chemistry and biology.

And it doesn’t end there. In geosciences, for instance, you’d expect to find faculty dating fossils and studying the composition of rock layers or ice cores. But you might be surprised to also find them out in the field using space-based remote sensing equipment to monitor post wildfire erosion, and using data collected from lidar radar to create computer models that can better predict the quality of our mountain snowpack.

With the College of Innovation and Design, Boise State is taking this idea a step further through vertically integrated projects. The VIP program, which is led by Georgia Tech and includes 20 national universities, unites large teams of undergraduates with graduate students and faculty to confront long-term research projects.

VIP courses break down the walls between academic disciplines, allowing students from across the university to join together under the supervision of seasoned research faculty to learn and work on developing solutions to problems of local and global importance. Projects can last a decade or more, and undergraduates may spend several years with their lead faculty and project team.

As an example, a current VIP project revolves around plasma, the fourth state of matter. Plasma is an ionized gas containing ions, electrons and neutral gas particles. A new area of research uses plasma for biomedical applications including wound healing, bacterial disinfection and tissue engineering. For the first time, the Plasma Medicine VIP at Boise State is studying the use of plasma to treat chronic wound-healing in diabetic patients and burn victims.

Another VIP group, called Shelter Lab, is working to advance the state of the art in disaster shelters and associated technologies. Modular structures and various technologies to enable disaster relief or self-sustained living already exist. However, there is no single solution to provide low-cost, lightweight, modular structures that feel like home and are capable of supporting a family for medium- to long-term habitation in remote locations.

The new Automated Music Transcription VIP is attempting to create software for the automatic transcription of music captured on personal mobile devices. The challenge is to use a single audio track containing audience noise along with a mixture of instruments and vocals and turn that into transcripts for each of the individual instruments. There are already algorithms that can turn a single track of studio-recorded music into transcripts; the challenge here is to do the same for a noisy track. Imagine walking away from a concert or jam session with sheets of music. The project is actively recruiting music, physics, electrical engineering and computer science students.

While this is just a sampling of projects currently underway, it’s easy to see how the work being done benefits society at large. What’s even more exciting, though, is how this model also benefits students and researchers, particularly those in the early years of their careers.

The expectation for fully tenured faculty is that they actively partner with agencies and community groups to solve big issues, but in the early years of an academic career it can be a challenge to balance teaching and research. By design, VIP courses integrate teaching and research together, while allowing faculty to grow their expertise and partnerships as the project matures. They also can become incubators for new research ideas, which in turn can lead to new grants and other funding opportunities.

The best part is that all students get credit for their contributions to VIP projects. From the time they enroll as freshmen to the time they graduate with a Ph.D., the program cultivates creative confidence, catalytic inquiry, thought leadership and project management to change and challenge the world as we know it.

Best of all, studies have shown that students who are engaged are more likely to graduate. And that’s a win for all of Idaho.

Mark Rudin is vice president for research and economic development at Boise State University, where he oversees the Office of Sponsored Programs, the Office of Research Compliance, and other administrative and technical offices. His column looks at the state of scientific discovery and economic development in Idaho and beyond.