A new direction for Mason research

This story was originally published in the April 27 print issue.

Mason faculty are off to find whole new worlds together. A university-wide effort is underway, something that is trying to encompass the 550 programs of study, 1,500 faculty, and over 30,000 students at this school.

This effort is to increase multidisciplinary research, and Mason will host its first symposium of that name on April 27 in Research Hall 163.

A Student with MicroscopeThe university is calling this event a “first-of-its-kind,” and it is being held to increase research among academic departments, specifically research to address “socially significant challenges,” according to Newsdesk.

The topic is health, which is intentionally broad, and the event is open to all faculty, students and staff.

“It’s all encompassing,” Peggy Agouris, dean of the College of Science, said. “So you can be a social scientist and have particular interest in health, you can be a biologist you can be an educator so it has the capability of including a lot of people.”

The symposium will include a panel of eight Mason faculty who have experience conducting multidisciplinary research.

The panel features professor Kathryn Jacobsen with the College of Health and Human Services.

“Being involved in multidisciplinary research has equipped me with a much larger ‘toolkit’ of research methods that I can apply to public health issues,” Jacobsen said via email.

Agouris is the main person in charge of organizing the symposium.

“We want to make an impact on issues which are of societal importance,” Agouris said. “…Multidisciplinary means the capability of combing expertise from a variety of areas to answer questions which are important for health, for security, for climate, for a lot of things which are important for people.”

The rest of the panel includes Monique Van Hoek with the College of Science; Lynn Gerber with the CHHS; Naoru Koizumi with the School of Policy, Government and International Affairs; Siddhartha Sikdar with Engineering; Faye Taxman with the College of Humanities and Social Sciences; Mandy O’Neill with the School of Business, and Giorgio Ascoli with the Krasnow Institute of Advanced Study.

Prominent funders of Mason research will also be present at the symposium, including the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, among others.

Multidisciplinary research is the direction Mason wants to voyage in. The Strategic Plan includes the goal to create “at least five multidisciplinary institutes.” According to Agouris and other faculty, Provost David Wu has been trying to advance this kind of research since he came to the university in July 2014. Agouris said the encouraged focus on multidisciplinary will likely make Mason research more applicable to real-world issues because there is rarely a problem that can be solved with only one discipline.

In an email to students on April 13, Wu described the new Multidisciplinary Research Initiative, which includes seed grants from the Provost’s office to sponsor proposals that will hopefully be advanced by the symposium.

“The awarded seed grants will provide catalyst funding to pilot projects that support truly innovative ideas, foster collaboration across colleges and academic units, strengthen work in one (or more) of Mason’s intellectual signatures, and afford opportunities for external funding in the future,” reads the MRI website.

But how innovative is multidisciplinary research? Agouris said this is a new trend in research, as faculty start to realize they sometimes cannot make it on their own. Other faculty said research is inherently multidisciplinary.

“It’s almost an oxymoron to think of research independently of multidisciplinary, at least from my perspective,” Lynn Gerber, director of the Center for Chronic Illness and Disability, said. Gerber said, as a practitioner of clinical research, reaching out to other disciplines is essential to her work.

However, Agouris said multidisciplinary research is not widespread, mainly because teachers do not usually leave their field or expertise or “comfort zone,” as Agouris explained. She hopes the symposium will help change this.

“I don’t think Mason has ever done anything of the kind,” Agouris said. “And the results which we’ll see should be to create this atmosphere of interaction, of partnerships, of exchange, of ideas, of thinking of bigger things than our own little comfort zone.”

Agouris said the symposium has three main objectives. One is to “raise awareness” among research faculty as to who is researching what, the first step in collaborating on multidisciplinary projects.

“The first thing to really bring people together who are interested in the broader theme of health,” Agouris said.

Second is to open the eyes of researchers to multidisciplinary research, meaning that they will hopefully understand how a researcher in a another field can help them. Agouris said some people are not aware of the gaps in their research, and so are not aware that people in other fields might be able to fill them.

“Two of us together can make more impact than each one of us individually,” Agouris explained.

Third is to “create a mechanism” for multidisciplinary research to expand at Mason. Agouris said she hopes the symposium will be a sort of launch pad and will get a lot of things rolling.

“How do we support bigger teams, more diverse teams, and how do we learn this process so that we can build better proposals and teams to go after bigger funds?” Agouris said. “…I think this is an opportunity to expand how we do research into themes that are cross cutting.”

The goal to expand this kind of research permeates most if not all of Mason’s departments. According to Debra Shutika, chair of the English Department, she hopes the symposium will make other departments more aware of English’s work.

“We have a very robust research agenda in the department,” Shutika said.

She said people might not realize this because English research is not as “visible” as that of other colleges. English research might not have as obvious of an applicability as other forms of research, Shutika explained.

“My faculty spend time doing research on a variety of different things,” she said.

She said research is active in all of the English department’s disciplines; the B.A. alone has 13 concentrations. All this activity, Shutika said, means that English is at the core “a multidisciplinary department.”

One reason Mason is emphasizing multidisciplinary research is to advance its identity and purpose as a research university overall. Agouris said that Mason is indeed dedicated to improving its research capacity and quality.

“Our institution is very much interested in enhancing and growing its research portfolio,” Agouris said.

She said the way to start the conversation about what it means to be a research university is to ask the question, why do institutions of higher education conduct research in the first place?  She said there are two main reasons — “research creates excellence” and institutions of learning have a duty to contribute to, well, learning.

“[Research] is good for an institution’s reputation,” Agouris said. “The quality of students that it attracts, the quality of faculty, how much [of] whatever it produces is really attracting, contributing to the academic experience of the students.”

Agouris said universities are in a different position than government agencies when it comes to research, a position that allows for more freedom. She said universities can “dream bigger,” so they have a duty to “be at the forefront of scientific thinking.”

“If it’s not us who pursue new things, who’s going to do this?” Agouris added.

Other faculty said Mason has some way to go before it can be honestly considered as a top-of-the-line research university.

Agouris was of the opinion that Mason is doing well for its age.

Gerber said her research would benefit from more facilities, but understand why that might not be feasible for the school.

“We’re not there yet, and we’re not there yet for a variety of reasons,” Gerber said. “…For me to do tier one research, I need a health science campus or a hospital system campus or a medical school. We don’t have that.”

Gerber said Mason does not currently have the budget to develop those additional facilities, but her department makes up for that by collaborating with other organizations in the area, like INOVA.

“In this day, given our financial restrictions and the fact that we’ve got a very diverse student population, many of whom are job driven not necessarily professional career driven, you can’t dump all your resources into developing research capability,” Gerber said. “It doesn’t make sense.”

The Carnegie Classifications of Institutions of Higher Education classifies all of the eight Ivy League schools as research university with very high research activity. Mason, by comparison, has high research activity; goal 10 of the Strategic Plan includes obtaining the very high research activity classification.

Across the globe, research universities are becoming the standard model for higher education. Many nations are also looking to copy America’s model, because it is incredibly successful, judging by usual placements on various international ranking systems.

A lot of the rankings favor research-intensive universities, which may seem to support the argument that research universities have a tendency to neglect the quality of the actual teaching.

“The conventional criticisms of the research university is that faculty are rewarded by their research productivity and not by their teaching” Shutika acknowledged.

She said the English department works diligently to strike the ideal balance between quality professors and active academics.

“I really do believe that the research university, with balance, is the ideal learning institution for students,” Shutika said. “…If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be here, and that’s basically what I work to create every day in our department.”

Photo Credit: Songjun Deng