Final Interdisciplinary Junior Faculty Clusters Chosen

Jillian Bogater, University Record
Release Date: 

With the approval of 29 new positions, representing eight proposals, the 100 interdisciplinary junior faculty positions President Mary Sue Coleman called for in 2007 now are approved, though not all have been hired.

The newly announced clusters are in the areas of sustainability, health care technology, climate change, urban studies, adolescent substance use and abuse, children in poverty and biological networks.

"We have attracted exceptional scholars from around the world to expand collaborative teaching and research throughout the university. This has been a major undertaking by our deans and department chairs to advance new areas of scholarship," Coleman says. "The range of proposals we have funded holds great promise."

Coleman announced in 2007 a five-year, $30 million initiative to hire 100 tenure-track junior faculty members to increase the university's focus on teaching and research across disciplines.

The goal is to recruit scholars whose work crosses boundaries or for cluster hires that bring experts from different fields together to explore significant questions or address complex problems.

To date, the initiative has funded a total of 101 positions in 25 clusters; 34 faculty members have been hired, 26 now are on campus and another eight will begin their positions here by January 2012. Searches are under way or will be in the near future for the remaining positions.

This year's proposals include departments within the College of Engineering, Medical School, School of Dentistry, LSA, the School of Natural Resources and Environment, School of Public Health, Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, Stephen M. Ross School of Business, Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, School of Social Work and School of Education.

"In approving these new positions, we're strengthening the university's commitment to innovative teaching and interdisciplinary research on complex problems," Provost Phil Hanlon says. "We look forward to the contributions new faculty members will make in both areas."

An urban studies cluster proposed by Angela Dillard, professor and director of the Center for Afroamerican & African Studies, will focus on social inequality and the prospects for equity and sustainability. The research would focus on Detroit and southeast Michigan, both urban and metropolitan.

"We want to not only examine what's going on here, but also how to develop models and strategies to export to other post-industrial cities in similar circumstances," Dillard says. She envisions creation of a "Detroit School" of urban studies, similar to earlier research programs that led the "Chicago School" and later the "Los Angeles" schools of urban studies. One trend Dillard hopes to investigate is mass incarceration in Detroit.

"Why are so many people in prison? What does it do to our communities?" she asks. "This is the issue of the moment for our society. The numbers for Detroit are dramatic and devastating."

Dillard says her cluster will work with students from the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program and Project Community, as well as graduate students, to do research, conduct interviews and administer surveys.

Another proposal, Distributed Health Technologies, suggests an idea that will design, develop and test technologies that are compatible with large-scale distribution to the general community, says coordinator Sunitha Nagrath, assistant professor of chemical engineering.

This research will give students a unique "opportunity to work at the crossroads of engineering, medicine and biology," Nagrath says.

"The students will be exposed to the challenges of developing technologies that can go from bench side, bed side," she says. "They will have this creative environment where they can interact with multidisciplinary team of experts and develop multifaceted skills to face the real world challenges when it comes to implementing the innovative technologies into patient care."

Conducting post-doctoral work on the blood of cancer patients made Nagrath realize "the importance of interdisciplinary teamwork to make outstanding contributions to patient care."

"If we develop the technology from the design stage itself with the idea of taking to bed side, then the translation of research to patient care is much faster and easier," she says.

"The cluster hire will accelerate the process of integrating engineering solutions into clinical medicine from the conception stage, which is the thrust of next generation of life sciences technologies. This will uniquely position U-M at the cutting edge of the future of clinical medicine and soon U-M can take a lead in this emerging globewide health care scenario."

One cluster will examine the path toward a sustainable and equitable food system, spanning the natural and social sciences. Sustainable Food Systems is led by John Vandermeer, Asa Gray Distinguished University Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, LSA, and professor of natural resources and environment, School of Natural Resources and Environment.

Three of the clusters from previous years now are complete:

• Social Science Aspects of Energy — lead faculty member is Carl Simon at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. New faculty hired are Shaun McRae (economics), Brian Min (political science) and Ashley Langer (Ford School).

• Microbial Ecology: Relationships to Human and Environmental Health — lead faculty member is Deborah Goldberg in ecology and evolutionary biology. New faculty hired are Vincent Denef (ecology and evolutionary biology), Rickard Alexander (epidemiology), Patrick Schloss (microbiology and immunology) and Blaise Boles (molecular, cellular and developmental biology).

• Global Change: Cryosphere and Sea-level Impacts — lead faculty members are Chris Poulsen (geological sciences and atmospheric, oceanic and space sciences) and Todd Ehlers (geological sciences). New faculty hired are Jeremy Bassis (AOSS), Sarah Aciego (geological sciences) and Brian Arbic (geological sciences).