Presidential research initiative builds, advances four big data research teams

Illustration of an airplane, several drones and several rovers gathering data from a farm field.

Airplanes, drones and rovers could collect huge amounts of data from farm fields. The presidential research initiative is supporting an interdisciplinary team that will work to make sense of all that data. Illustration by Marcus Naik/Mechanical Engineering.

AMES, Iowa – The second round of awards from Iowa State University’s Presidential Initiative for Interdisciplinary Research will help build four big data research teams and launch major projects in digital agriculture and intelligent text analysis.

The four new awards are designed to strengthen data driven science on campus, build teams of faculty members across disciplines, create research partnerships beyond campus and eventually establish new research centers capable of winning external funding.

“Building and supporting these four research teams will help Iowa State be a pioneer and a leader in big data,” said Iowa State President Steven Leath. “Data science now impacts every field, from business to engineering to the natural, physical and social sciences. By finding new and better ways to extract knowledge from large and complex data sets, we can advance all those disciplines, educate students and develop our state’s economy.”

Here are this year’s winning teams, selected from 10 full proposals involving 100 faculty members:

  • Data Driven Discoveries for Agricultural Innovation, $750,000 research support over three years, led by Carolyn Lawrence-Dill, associate professor of genetics, development and cell biology; Asheesh Singh, assistant professor of agronomy; and Baskar Ganapathysubramanian, associate professor of mechanical engineering. The research team of 19 faculty members from across campus will work to make significant strides in the collection, management, interpretation and use of data related to agriculture. The project’s vision “is to set the stage for ISU to become the recognized international research source of expertise in data driven agriculture,” the researchers wrote in a project summary.
  • An Automated Functional Language Extraction (AFLEX) System to Transform the Translation of STEM Research to Society, $450,000 research support over three years, led by Annette O’Connor, professor of veterinary diagnostic and production animal medicine. The team’s seven researchers are also from English, statistics, computer science, industrial and manufacturing systems engineering and food science and human nutrition. They’ll work to improve society’s access to scientific research findings and enhance communication between scientists. They’ll develop a system capable of identifying and extracting relevant data from the overwhelming amount of information in scientific texts. “When scientific findings are retrieved, summarized, and communicated to decision makers in a timely manner, the societal impacts include informed decision making and reduced research waste,” the researchers wrote in a project summary.
  • Big Data for Sustainable City Decision Making, $50,000 for one year of planning and development, led by Ulrike Passe, associate professor of architecture and director of the Center for Building Energy Research. The team’s 10 researchers are also from statistics, computer science, industrial and manufacturing systems engineering, human computer interaction, English, community and regional planning, agronomy and the City of Des Moines. The team aims to develop data-intensive decision-making systems to help decision makers create more livable, sustainable and resilient cities. The team’s initial focus will be on energy conservation policies.
  • Combining Big Data and Survey Data to Meet New Challenges in Data Driven Policy Development and Evaluation, $50,000 for one year of planning and development, led by Zhengyuan Zhu, associate professor of statistics. The team’s nine researchers are also from economics and civil, construction and environmental engineering. The team plans to develop innovative methods for combining multiple survey and non-survey data sources to transform how policies are made and evaluated. The initial focus will be on food assistance programs and water quality initiatives.

Sarah Nusser, Iowa State’s vice president for research, said the initial presidential research awards in 2013 have already produced large-scale research collaborations with other universities, federal agencies and industry partners. Those collaborations have attracted more than $30 million in external support.

“The program very successfully fostered research teams that could build the scale, stature and impact of interdisciplinary research at Iowa State,” Nusser said. “And so we asked President Leath to continue to support the initiative, especially to pursue his goal of becoming a leader in big data.”

If funding is available, Nusser said the initiative will continue with another round of awards supporting big data research teams. A request for proposals is expected in February. Details will be here.