Winning support for Iowa State research, discoveries

By Sarah Nusser, vice president for research

Iowa State University received its second-highest level of research funding in fiscal year 2017. Researchers landed $243.7 million from external sponsors to support groundbreaking research.

Iowa State received $168.7 million in research support from federal agencies, including the Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Institutes of Health. Research funding from non-federal sponsors totaled $74.9 million. Non-federal sponsors include industry, commodity organizations, nonprofits, the state of Iowa, and subcontracts from other higher education institutions.

Department of Energy support for Iowa State researchers was one area of growth in research funding during fiscal year 2017. New funding supports research to create novel metal materials to make electric vehicle motors smaller, lighter, more powerful, and more cost effective; develop novel algorithms to manage emerging use of distributed generators in our power grid system and to protect the future smart power grid from cyberattacks; and develop microsensors to improve crop production and environmental sustainability in generating feedstocks for biorenewable energy and chemicals. Iowa State also received Department of Energy funding to support the Ames Laboratory, a national laboratory co-located on Iowa State’s campus that conducts research on materials science, condensed matter physics and chemistry. The Ames Laboratory celebrated its 70th year as a collaborative partner with Iowa State this May.

Research funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture helps Iowa State researchers improve production of animals and plants to support local, national and global demand for food and energy. New funding is supporting researchers in their quest to use new algorithms to advance genomic selection for plants and animals, improve breeding strategies for increasing disease resistance in swine, understand genetic mechanisms that drive the emergence of plant wilt in crops, engineer microbial cell membranes to improve production of biorenewable chemicals and fuels, and utilize integrated pest management as a strategy to increase wild and honey bee populations.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) sponsors innovative research at Iowa State to address a broad range of challenges in research and workforce development in science, technology, engineering and mathematical (STEM) fields. This year’s funding is helping researchers develop a traffic incident management system to improve road safety and traffic control; create low-cost, disposable biosensors to improve disease diagnosis, pathogen detection, and water quality testing; investigate “orphan genes” – genes without clear genetic parents – to increase crop plant resiliency and nutritional value; understand how black men’s experiences in engineering colleges shape their identities and academic success in order to improve academic retention and success for minorities in STEM fields; and develop novel educational programs to improve gender and race/ethnic diversity in software engineering and other STEM fields.

Novel instrumentation is also supported by NSF, including a field-based robotic network that gathers plant growth measurements for understanding how crop growth varies with environmental conditions, as well as a joint Iowa State and University of Iowa project to improve measurement of structural, mechanical and thermal properties of soft materials.

Biomedical research supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) includes investigating the role of pesticide exposure in the development of Parkinson’s disease and identifying chemical candidates to target cell structures in malaria-causing parasites. NIH also provides funding to encourage minority students to pursue veterinary toxicology through a new online program about the importance of protecting human, animal and environmental health.

Iowa State humanities researchers also landed funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities for two history projects, including investigating the influence of women artists in East German and western politics, and understanding media use by Native Americans in rebuilding their cultural, economic and political systems during the Great Depression and World War II. 

Iowa State research is supported by a variety of other federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, National Institute of Standards and Technology, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and Department of Transportation, among others. 

Non-federal sponsors, such as industry, commodity groups, nonprofit organizations and the state of Iowa, are also vital to Iowa State’s research portfolio. Commodity groups and industry, for example, are instrumental in supporting research in agricultural production and the development of new technologies for commercialization.

Nonprofit organizations are playing a bigger role in supporting research at Iowa State. A new project funded by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation evaluates models for improving adolescent health through community-healthcare provider partnerships that integrate screening, intervention and treatment referral. The James S. McDonnell Foundation supports work on incorporating principles from the science of learning – how best to learn and retain information, how to improve student motivation, and how to enhance learning of complex skills – in varying contexts from individualized learning, to small classrooms with young children, to large online classes for adult learners.