First preeminence funding to advance new research frontiers

With a computerized world generating colossal amounts of information, many experts believe the emerging science of big data will lead to bold new insights in fields from biology to business.

Now, a team of University of Florida scientists, engineers, artists, educators, natural scientists and others will help to shape that future.

The team will explore new techniques to manipulate the trillions of gigabytes being generated by computers and sensors worldwide — and apply those techniques to shed light on challenges both societal and scientific. Its proposal received the largest share among 16 proposals funded with the first round of $15 million in state preeminence dollars, university officials announced today.

“We selected the proposals that reflect UF’s current strengths and that have potential to move the needle in their fields,” said UF President Bernie Machen. “Such leadership in science and scholarship is a critical step to UF’s rise among the nation’s top public universities.”

The announcement caps a months-long process that began with Florida lawmakers this spring designating UF as preeminent and providing the university with $15 million annually for five years to elevate its academic and research performance.

UF Provost Joe Glover estimated the newly released funds would enable the hiring of 75 to 100 faculty members, with the total depending on the mix of senior, mid-career and junior faculty. Officials have said their goal is to bring in professors who are well-known in their fields, show unusual promise, or have unique expertise. The hope is to make many of the hires and have the professors in place by next fall.

Although the funded proposals are diverse, many seek to establish or advance new frontiers in health, computing and life sciences.

Among the health-related proposals, UF will fund a proposal to discover and develop new medicinal drugs; improve mathematical modeling of epidemics and other disease outbreaks; and enhance human understanding of neuroscience and the brain.

“Faculty tied to UF’s Emerging Pathogens Institute have already made great strides in modeling malaria and other diseases, and the team behind the mathematical modeling proposal made a strong argument that new hires would help them reach the next level,” Glover said. “The same is true of the neuroscience proposal, which builds on groundbreaking research at UF’s McKnight Brain Institute.”

The computing proposals include one aimed at enhancing cyber-security – an increasing priority for consumers, the military and corporations – and the big data proposal, which received $3.8 million in funding.

With 90 percent of today’s data created in the last two years alone, the timing is right for UF to establish a leadership role, Machen said.

“The big data effort pulls together some of our best faculty from across the university at an auspicious moment for this new science,” he said. “With the right hires, we can be at the frontier.”

Life science-related proposals include an effort to improve plant genomics and a program to enhance the security of the food chain. Others range from continuing UF’s leadership in historical archaeology in the Southeast to enhancing communication in the science, engineering and math fields. (A complete list of the 16 funded proposals appears below.)

Machen noted that UF expects to supplement the state preeminence dollars with its own privately raised funds. The university’s fundraising arm, the UF Foundation, in August announced a “Preeminence Initiative” campaign to raise $800 million for more than 100 new endowed professorships or chairs.

“With the state’s support, and with the commitment of our alumni and friends, we are in a position to have a fairly dramatic impact on scientific and scholarly research at the university,” Machen said. “While that will enhance UF’s standing among top public universities nationally, it will also benefit the state economically, and ultimately, improve people’s lives and understanding of the world.”

Funded Proposals

  • Big data: $3.8 million
  • Law: $250,000
  • Cyber-security: $330,000
  • Drug Discovery and Development: $900,000
  • Food Security, Safety and Distribution Systems: $1.45 million
  • Historical and Environmental Archaeology: $150,000
  • Latin American Development: $300,000
  • Materials Innovation: $260,000
  • Mathematical Modeling of Diseases: $300,000
  • Metabolomics: $900,000
  • Mucosal Immunology: $500,000
  • Neuroscience and the Brain: $2.2 million
  • Global Health Initiative: $500,000
  • Optimizing Early Childhood Interventions: $575,000
  • Plant Genomics: $710,000
  • STEM Translational Communication Research: $200,000

Written by: Joe Glover