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Path to Excellence

Mobilizing the expertise of its faculty, SDSU is building new areas of research distinction.
Design by Jeff Ernst
Design by Jeff Ernst

This story is featured in the fall 2013 issue of 360: The Magazine of San Diego State University.

In the not-too-distant future, social media will accurately predict presidential elections and track the spread of flu epidemics.

Global Positioning Systems (GPS) will help protect us from violent crime.

It’s a remarkable new world of information dynamics, and San Diego State researchers are taking us there. The initiative is one of SDSU’s new “areas of excellence”—research partnerships designed to address some of the most urgent challenges in basic science and the social sciences.

Over the next several years, SDSU will invest in these four areas of excellence:

  • Human Dynamics in the Mobile Age involves faculty from 14 different disciplines in a collaboration that mines and massages digital data to understand how information influences our individual and collective lives.
  • The Viral Information Institute integrates researchers from biology, mathematics, computer science, engineering and public health to study viruses and manipulate their interaction with Earth’s ecosystems for the benefit of human and environmental health.
  • Clinical and Cognitive Neuroscience, aligned with the White House BRAIN initiative, advances SDSU’s contributions to the understanding and treatment of brain-based disorders such as autism, aphasia, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders and Alzheimer’s disease.
  • The Center for Climate and Sustainability Studies is on course to become a global resource for climate change information as well as a regional hub for education and policy development to help guide San Diego’s sustainability decisions.

Complex problems

Each of these areas of excellence builds on existing faculty strengths to solve complex problems with new research approaches and cutting-edge technology.

“Much of this research ties into our nation’s economic, human and social health,” said Stephen Welter, vice president for research and graduate affairs. “Not only will our science be of the highest caliber from an intellectual perspective, but it is also expected to have the highest level of impact for positive change in society.”

SDSU’s commitment to this collaborative, entrepreneurial research strategy is underscored by plans to hire 16 new faculty members over the next two years to participate in these areas of excellence.

“By adding faculty with expertise to complement our existing strengths, we can advance into new spheres of research that will be distinctive in themselves and provide distinction to our campus,” Welter said.

1. Virtual goldmine

In our increasingly virtual world, every story, every post, every comment on the World Wide Web originates at a specific point and travels from one user to another. Researchers have found that the “geospatial footprints” left behind as ideas sprint through cyberspace can tell us a lot—for example, where terrorist groups are recruiting or which candidate has the edge in a political campaign.

Now, the maturation of mobile technology and smart devices gives researchers access to large data sets that can yield new insights into human behavior and interaction.

SDSU researchers in this area of excellence will employ advanced technology and analysis to assist in crime prevention; help control the spread of infectious disease and understand the political and social issues that matter to citizens, locally, nationally and globally.

More information about this area of excellence is on the SDSU website.

2. Probing the unknown

Viruses are the most abundant biological entities on Earth, outnumbering bacteria more than tenfold. Although viruses infect all known cells and profoundly influence their evolution, the precise function of viruses is largely unknown. SDSU biologists have led the way in characterizing “viral dark matter,” and the Viral Information Institute will continue and expand this research.

Combining strengths in genomics, genetics and biochemistry, mathematical modeling, and computational analysis, members of this area of excellence will continue to probe biological “space” to find and explore unparalleled interactions between viruses and other organisms present in various environments.

Their research may develop new ways to detect, manipulate and control viruses that infect bacteria in natural systems, from the human digestive tract to ocean waters and coral reefs.

3. The brain’s secrets

Physicians and researchers know a lot about the workings of the human heart, but the brain has been more reluctant to surrender its secrets. Recently, the White House proposed a $100-million federally coordinated initiative to revolutionize our understanding of the brain.

With research strengths in human behavioral neuroscience and clinical neuropsychology, plus expertise in neuroimaging, SDSU is well-placed to contribute to this national initiative.

Faculty specializing in clinical and cognitive neuroscience will collaborate to increase understanding of brain-based disorders. Working with a range of ages and afflictions, they will also look for genetic factors that may influence an individual’s susceptibility to injury or damage and response to treatment.

To better serve San Diego’s large veteran population, researchers in this area of excellence hope to include a new faculty member with expertise in traumatic brain injuries.

4
. Unique regional resource

Members of SDSU’s new Center for Climate and Sustainability Studies were among the first to detect global warming, associate it with human activity and determine the effects of climate change on Earth’s ecosystems. Now researchers want to expand this cross-disciplinary work to include solutions to address sustainability.

They will investigate how global climate change can affect ecosystems to feedback and amplify global warming, and how temperature variations—even as slight as 1 degree—can accelerate the spread of infectious diseases. They will bring the impacts of climate change close to home by studying its effects on San Diego’s ecosystems, agriculture, water availability and general economic health.

When fully operational, the Center for Climate and Sustainability Studies promises to become a unique regional resource. Researchers will collaborate with Scripps Institution of Oceanography and UC Irvine’s Earth System Science Group, but take a different spin, focusing on the ecological and sustainability applications of climate change research.

A new model

As these areas of excellence develop, and faculty members create new interdisciplinary centers across campus, SDSU can become a model for a different kind of university, Welter observed.

“This campus is very good at overcoming challenges and finding creative ways to be successful,” he said, citing SDSU’s growth as a research institution in the last 30 years.

“With strong commitment from our faculty, we can lead the way toward a new model of higher learning—one that involves a true sharing of ideas between faculty, staff and students, where undergraduates are valued as part of the academic conversation, and where the entrepreneurial spirit plays out in our teaching and our research.”

Read about the faculty researchers involved in SDSU's areas of excellence.

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