Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Thursday, October 28, 2010

New round of interdisciplinary junior faculty approved

WANTED:

• Faculty experts in how genes influence behavior and cognition across a lifetime

• One faculty member each in the areas of mechatronics and biomechanics to help solve problems with rehabilitation robotics

• Junior scholars in the arts, humanities and social sciences whose research is of the Mediterranean, its history, culture and architecture

 

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These are some of the 23 faculty members the university will be searching for from the latest round of approved projects under President Mary Sue Coleman’s Interdisciplinary Junior Faculty Initiative, first announced in 2007.

The president committed $30 million to the hiring of 100 junior faculty members to advance scholarship that cuts across academic disciplines, while improving connections between students and faculty, according to the president’s website. To date, 72 positions have been approved.

The five new clusters brings the number of funded proposals to 17, and out of the approved positions 25 new faculty members have been hired to date, says Provost Phil Hanlon.

“Our students and faculty are intrigued by complex and challenging questions in areas from sustainable economic development to the cultural effects of digitization,” Hanlon says. “We’re pleased to be recruiting new faculty members whose teaching and research will help us understand and address these concerns.”

The latest round of funded proposals includes:

• Computational Media for Interactive Systems
Five positions
Schools or colleges involved: A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, College of Engineering, School of Art & Design and School of Music, Theatre & Dance

• Genes, Environment and Behavior (GEB)
Five positions
Schools or colleges involved: LSA and the Medical School

• The Mediterranean Perspective on Global History and Culture
Four positions
Schools or colleges involved: A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning and LSA

• Rehabilitation Robotics
Four positions
Schools or colleges involved: College of Engineering, Medical School, School of Kinesiology

• Reproductive Sciences
Five positions
Schools or colleges involved: College of Engineering and the Medical School

Coleman reiterated her commitment to interdisciplinary work Wednesday during her State of the University message.

“Three years ago, we launched an initiative to hire 100 junior faculty — up-and-coming professors committed to interdisciplinary teaching and research that explores the truly complex issues of our day,” Coleman said.

“I’ve been particularly intrigued by the number of proposals to expand teaching and research in the areas of climate change, sustainability and energy. We know our students are hungry for this knowledge, with huge enrollment jumps in undergraduate and graduate programs that address environmental issues.”

One of the original clusters, approved in 2008, is called Global Change: Cryosphere and Sea-Level Impacts. The collaboration between the Department of Geological Sciences in LSA, and the Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences in the College of Engineering was created by Chris Poulsen, associate professor of geological sciences and associate professor of AOSS.

In a nutshell the team — which includes four new faculty members who will work with others currently in the two units — is conducting research on the impacts of sea level change as a result of global warming.

“To understand these changes first requires an understanding of the physics of ice sheets (or glaciers) and how they react to global warming,” Poulsen says. It also requires an understanding of how the earth’s atmosphere and the oceans interact.

That’s where new faculty members Sarah Aciego, Jeremy Bassis, Brian Arbic and Mark Flanner come in.

Aciego is an isotope geochemist, who for the last four years has been working on a new technique to determine the age of ice. Current practices to date the massive sheets have involved counting the layers of seasonal snowfall that are visible. But once the researcher gets below about 1,500 feet, the layers no longer can be seen, she says, making it difficult to know the ice sheet’s age. Without this information, it is hard to know where it was formed and how it has reacted to various temperature extremes at the two poles.

Aciego is enthusiastic about bringing her pioneering technique to U-M, where she is establishing a new lab to begin the work.

“The cluster is an excellent opportunity to work in a group where all of us are working on climate change problems together,” she says. Only on campus since July, Aciego and her new colleague Bassis, an expert in how ice sheets and glaciers flow, have talked about bringing their expertise to bear on the question of how long water sits at the base of ice sheets and glaciers, which could answer some questions about changes recently observed in glaciers flowing out from the Greenland ice sheet.

Bassis agrees that having several researchers coming at a problem from multiple perspectives is what “makes this such a powerful initiative and the University of Michigan an appealing place to be.”

“What I hope is that the specific skill set and experiences that each of us bring to bear on the problem can be leveraged so that together we can approach larger, more complicated problems than either of us can tackle individually,” Bassis says. “This in turn will allow us to better inform policy makers and engineers, and come with new technologies to help mitigate the effects of global warming and sea level rise, in particular.”

Poulsen says this type of collaboration usually is found in national institutes developed to study specific research areas, not college campuses.

“We are definitely ahead of the curve, and are one of a few leading in this area of research,” Poulsen says, adding that U-M is well positioned to be a leader in global change science.

A project new faculty member Arbic is involved with is evidence of this leadership. Arbic, a physical oceanographer who studies ocean currents and tides using numerical models run on powerful supercomputers, just returned from Portugal where he was consulting NASA and the French space agency on a planned new $1 billion satellite. The new technology will map sea-level changes associated with waves, tides, El Nino, tsunamis and other ocean phenomena at unprecedented horizontal resolutions, providing sea-level maps that are much more two-dimensional than those produced by current technologies. From Europe, he went to Princeton for the first meeting of a multi-institution project on energy dissipation in the ocean, recently funded by a special Climate Process Team grant from the National Science Foundation.

“I study the physics of the ocean, which impacts fisheries, coastal oceans and climate — the latter through the storage and transfer of large amounts of heat and carbon dioxide. Even today, with all of the technology we have available, there are many aspects of ocean physics which are not as well understood as we would like them to be,” he says.

For a complete list of projects funded to date under the interdisciplinary junior faculty initiative, and information about submitting proposals for 2010-11, go to www.provost.umich.edu/faculty/faculty_initiative.