Advancing a Culture of Interdisciplinary Excellence

Memorial Belltower

The concept of interdisciplinarity encompasses not only the production of new knowledge through collaboration across disciplines, but new ways of putting that knowledge to use for the benefit of others. Interdisciplinary education lays the foundation for personal and professional success for members of academia and the students under their purview.

In a July 2021 article for Forbes magazine, “The Need for Interdisciplinarity in Higher Education,” Irma Becerra, president of Marymount University, states that “The goal of interdisciplinarity remains elusive at most higher ed institutions.” NC State, however, utilizes interdisciplinarity as a means of supporting outstanding faculty members and creating well-rounded students ready to tackle society’s grand challenges.

Research 1 universities like NC State benefit from interdisciplinary initiatives as a way to bring bright minds together and attract grants that fund innovative scholarship and service. Federal funding agencies expect grants to propose a team approach to research projects, and students must be trained to work in teams, as that is what will be expected of them when they leave NC State. The university’s embrace of interdisciplinarity over the past decade reaps benefits for the entire university community, and undergirds NC State’s mission and vision through integration of strategic planning efforts. 

“We take the idea of interdisciplinarity and turn it into something tangible that benefits our faculty, staff, students and community in ways that break down traditional academic barriers,” said Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Warwick Arden. “Each strategic activity or initiative we undertake advances NC State’s mission and vision and sets an example for how to successfully approach interdisciplinary work in higher education.”

The Pathway to the Future: NC State’s 2011-2020 Strategic Plan, moved the university further toward accomplishing interdisciplinary excellence in many areas of scholarship.  Now, a new strategic plan has been put in motion to further that progress.

Wolfpack 2030: Powering the Extraordinary

NC State’s new strategic plan came together through a University Strategic Planning Executive Steering Committee and task forces composed of faculty, staff, students and university leadership from all areas of campus. The plan emphasizes the power of interdisciplinarity to positively impact the entire university community and change the way teaching, learning, research and service happen. 

The plan stresses collaboration across colleges, disciplines and perspectives, and in how NC State partners with a broad range of organizations to find solutions to challenges at home and around the world. Through implementation of the plan, faculty and staff will equip students to be strong in their unique disciplines, but also experienced in interdisciplinary collaboration, to be prepared to engage in an increasingly globalized, competitive society.

Interdisciplinarity remains a key pillar of NC State’s comprehensive excellence, and several strategic plan goals touch specifically on the interdisciplinary experience. The second goal — to ensure preeminence in research, scholarship, innovation and collaboration — emphasizes the crucial nature of considering ways to use facilities and administrative funds to support interdisciplinary collaboration. In this way, NC State can attract funding by incentivizing collaboration among colleges, units and various disciplines within the university. 

The sixth goal — to lead in developing innovative partnerships, entrepreneurial thinking and applied problem-solving — demonstrates the importance of growing economic and social prosperity through various partnerships, including those coming from NC State’s more than 50 centers and institutes. Over 1,000 faculty work on cutting edge interdisciplinary research projects at these centers and institutes, which generate solutions to myriad challenges facing the world today.

Strategic Progress

To date, more than 500 interdisciplinary faculty have been hired since the debut of The Pathway to the Future, NC State’s 2011-2020 Strategic Plan. This includes more than 70 faculty members of the Chancellor’s Faculty Excellence Program (CFEP), which is part of NC State’s ongoing effort to encourage and enhance a culture of interdisciplinary exploration at NC State.

The CFEP has had a profound impact both internally and externally. Internally, the CFEP contributed to changing how faculty engage with one another. The program has also changed NC State’s expectations with respect to disciplinary hires and has begun to permeate the colleges, which are now making more interdisciplinary hires outside the clusters. Externally the university has enhanced its reputation, which increases competitiveness with respect to recruitment of graduate students, faculty and for federal grants.

“The work we do as part of a cluster allows us to make a deeper impact on issues than we would individually,” said Arnav Jhala, associate professor of computer science and member of the Visual Narrative cluster. “For example, our cluster started a project we call ‘Urban Panorama,” where we use computer algorithms, archival photographs and more to characterize street level markers of economic inequality in Raleigh. We’re bringing together history, computer science, economics and more to find an answer to why things are happening, what we can do to improve lives, and really scale up our research as part of an interdisciplinary team.”

In 2011, NC State launched CFEP to bring together the brightest minds in a range of academic disciplines and give them the support to tackle global issues. Faculty in 20 clusters work across academic boundaries to enhance the breadth and depth of the university’s solution-driven research and innovation. They build on historic strengths in the sciences, engineering, math, design, textiles, humanities and social sciences, and education. 

“Interdisciplinary approaches are often important in STEM fields because certain challenges are unsolvable by a single discipline,” said Manuel Kleiner, assistant professor of plant and microbial biology and member of the Microbiomes and Complex Microbial Communities cluster. “For example, the vast amounts of data that we generate with cutting edge omics approaches in the life sciences can only be made ‘human comprehensible’ with cutting edge computational approaches. So life scientists and computational scientists working hand in hand is critical.”

Retaining these bright minds remains a focus of Provost’s Office efforts to enhance interdisciplinarity on campus. This includes changes to the reappointment, promotion and tenure (RPT) process.

”Our review processes allow for input from interdisciplinary colleagues, either by providing comments to the department during an RPT review, or by creating an interdisciplinary review committee to conduct the review,” says Katharine Stewart, senior vice provost for faculty and academic affairs. “That helps ensure that the richness of the interdisciplinary work our faculty members are doing is being carefully considered in the RPT process.”  

University Interdisciplinary Programs

To further the university’s mission and build upon previous interdisciplinary efforts, the Provost’s Office will be undergoing several organizational changes. Senior Vice Provost for Academic Strategy and Resource Management and Chief of Staff Duane Larick retired effective January 1, 2022, and Senior Vice Provost for Entrepreneurship Tom Miller will be retiring effective July 1, 2022.

In light of these retirements, Provost Arden created the Office of University Interdisciplinary Programs to provide leadership, direction and oversight for the programmatic planning and implementation of universitywide interdisciplinary programs and initiatives. 

This newly-created office builds on successful interdisciplinary efforts that were begun as part of NC State’s previous strategic plan. The office also brings key Provost’s Office units and initiatives that cross disciplinary boundaries together in one place. It fosters and supports partnerships with university-level interdisciplinary programs and oversees the following: the Chancellor’s Faculty Excellence Program, academies, the Biotechnology Program, the Coastal Resilience and Sustainability Initiative, NC State Entrepreneurship, the Integrative Sciences Initiative and Building and the Shelton Leadership Center. The office’s work is closely aligned with Wolfpack 2030: Powering the Extraordinary, NC State’s 2021-2030 Strategic Plan, and will advance all three pillars of the university’s land-grant mission: excellent teaching, research and engagement. 

Additionally, an open search for the senior vice provost for university interdisciplinary programs is now underway. Finalist candidate interviews and open forums will be held in late spring 2022. All updates on the search are available on the search page on the Provost’s Office website or at go.ncsu.edu/svp-uip-search

Interdisciplinary Units and Programs

In addition to the Chancellor’s Faculty Excellence Program, NC State has embraced interdisciplinary teaching, research and service through a variety of programs, units and initiatives connected to the new Office of University Interdisciplinary Programs.

Academies

At NC State, an academy is a strategically-focused university-level interdisciplinary unit with the potential to and goal of working with all 10 colleges. Academies provide a common ground for faculty, staff and students of colleges, centers, institutes and other initiatives to connect and contribute to NC State’s key areas of interdisciplinary strength, providing leadership for North Carolina, the nation and the world. The work of the academies will address all three pillars of the university’s land-grant mission: excellent teaching, the creation and application of knowledge, and engagement with public and private partners.

In 2021, NC State launched two new academies: the Data Science Academy and the Genetics and Genomics Academy. Both academies will enhance NC State’s historic strengths and meet the growing needs for research, education and expertise in North Carolina and beyond in their respective fields.

The Data Science Academy (DSA) continues NC State’s leadership in the field of data science, building upon the success of the Institute for Advanced Analytics; the Laboratory for Analytic Sciences; the Data-Driven Science cluster and the Data Science Initiative (DSI). All current DSI activities will be transferred to the Data Science Academy or will be continued through NC State’s Office of Research and Innovation. In Fall 2021, the DSA ran research think tanks and piloted a set of new one-credit project-based courses that are designed to be both accessible and challenging for students from all majors. The DSA is also organizing an all-campus data science career fair each semester open to all students.

“Data Science provides a great context for interdisciplinarity — the Data Science Academy has brought together new interdisciplinary groups of researchers from across NC State who have common interests and complementary areas of expertise,” said Rachel Levy, the academy’s executive director. “In addition, the academy is collaborating with the NC State University Libraries to build interdisciplinary consulting services that serve our research community. As Data Science Academy analytics consultants, NC State graduate research assistants from many different fields bring their disciplinary perspectives to bear on a wide range of problems.”

The Genetics and Genomics Academy will enhance graduate-level education and research initiatives and add undergraduate courses and other opportunities for campuswide engagement in genetics and genomics. The academy is also constructing courses and seminars on related interdisciplinary topics. 

“The Genetics and Genomics Academy will provide a wealth of opportunities for not just faculty, but also students to build their skills working with a diverse group within the university setting,” said Fred Gould, the academy’s executive director. “We’re bringing together colleges and units across campus to advance a culture of interdisciplinary excellence that will solve genetics and genomics issues that greatly impact society.”

NC State Entrepreneurship

Both The Princeton Review and Entrepreneur magazine have ranked NC State No. 1 in the Southeast and No. 15 nationally for undergraduate and graduate entrepreneurship programs for 2022, and for good reason. The university works to engage students in entrepreneurship initiatives across disciplines, equipping them with the ability to take ideas and turn them into reality with courses, infrastructure, mentors, investors and more.

Entrepreneurship at NC State is embedded with interdisciplinary efforts, including a certificate in interdisciplinary entrepreneurship, and programs that encompass diverse fields such as agribusiness, the arts, computer science and engineering. Co-curricular offerings also include the Albright Entrepreneurs Village, located on Centennial Campus, and the Entrepreneurship Garage, which all students may access.

Integrative Sciences Initiative and Building

The Integrative Sciences Initiative (ISI) will change the way science is done at NC State by facilitating new and impactful synergies in research and education. This includes tackling challenges posed by infectious diseases and cancer, and efforts will continue to elevate NC State’s reputation as an outstanding R1 university. To meet these challenges, three thematic areas have been identified to collaboratively study, synthesize, and screen molecules and molecular pathways in the context of human and animal disease. Those are: molecular mechanisms of metabolism and disease; molecular synthesis and characterization; and molecular therapeutics and drug discovery.

Research and teaching across these themes will embrace cutting edge technologies in shared spaces and core facilities provided by the ISI. Synergy within and across themes will infuse the training and research environment for undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff, in a manner that is unprecedented at NC State.

As NC State has outgrown its currently available space for lab-based science programs, the $160 million Integrative Sciences Building (ISB) — the heart of the ISI —  will be built in the location of the former Harrelson Hall. The ISB will provide much-needed STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) teaching and research space and will inspire academic and research creativity focused on collaboration, discovery and transfer of knowledge.

Once completed, the ISB will welcome interdisciplinary scholars working on challenges related to human and non-human animal health and the environment. STEM-focused (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines will be housed in the ISB, with education and training programs focused on team science, inquiry-driven coursework across disciplines, communication and leadership, diversity and preparing for the jobs of tomorrow.

“The broad, campuswide Integrative Sciences Initiative, including the Integrative Sciences Building, will create a hub for interdisciplinary, molecularly-focused research, training and education,” said Larick. “The building will also help us redefine ‘science teaching’ to produce students who think and do – tackling grand societal challenges in an inquiry-based teaching and learning environment.” 

Biotechnology Program

The Biotechnology Program is a minor-only program for undergraduate, graduate and non-thesis graduate students at NC State; non-thesis graduate students may choose to complete a graduate certificate in biotechnology. The program provides excellent laboratory-based education to students and involves faculty, staff, and life science professionals in the region.

Students from across NC State’s 10 colleges, majoring in fields represented by nearly 80 different academic plans, are currently pursuing this minor. Through the help of faculty mentors and others, they engage in team science training and research, and have the opportunity for knowledge transfer across other programs at the university, like the Chemistry of Life program.

Plant Sciences Initiative

The Plant Sciences Initiative (PSI) represents a partnership between NC State and the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. PSI’s vision is “to be the world’s premier plant sciences enterprise accelerating discovery, talent development and applied solutions that solve agricultural challenges through interdisciplinary, team-based science.”

The initiative will be housed in the Plant Sciences Research Complex on Centennial Campus, where scientists, government and industry partners will collaborate on new approaches to pressing agricultural issues. Collaborations will focus on three interdisciplinary areas of research: plant improvement, data-driven plant science and resilient agricultural systems. The senior vice provost for university interdisciplinary programs will serve as a liaison to the Plant Sciences Initiative.

Shelton Leadership Center

The mission of the Shelton Leadership Center is to inspire, educate and develop values-based leaders committed to personal integrity, professional ethics and selfless service. Founded in 2002 by General H. Hugh Shelton, USA (R), former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the center serves the campus community and beyond through experiential education and service opportunities for high schoolers, college students and adults.

Over the past several years, the center has developed a cross-disciplinary academic minor that includes courses on critical and creative decision-making, values-based leadership, and internship experiences in leadership. These kinds of initiatives equip students to impact their communities and enjoy academic, personal and professional success.

Coastal Resilience and Sustainability Initiative

The Coastal Resiliency and Sustainability Initiative (CRSI) will serve as a catalyst for the creation of a more resilient and sustainable future for coastal communities across the state, nation and world. In alignment with the university’s strategic planning efforts, director Mary Watzin’s efforts crafted a deliberately interdisciplinary initiative that builds on NC State’s expertise in natural and social sciences, engineering and technology, and community outreach. 

The diverse team already assembled for CRSI brings together perspectives, strengths and values from across the academic spectrum to help understand issues and opportunities impacting coastal areas. This includes sustainable agriculture, forestry, and rural, natural resource-based economies; water quality and quantity in the coastal zone; energy resilience, and innovations in technology; coupled human and natural systems; mutually beneficial engagement that emphasizes social equity; and education at NC State and beyond.

“Our team’s broad range of expertise is necessary to understand how environments and communities are impacted by coastal health and change,” said Tal Ben-Horin, an assistant professor of shellfish pathology in the Department of Clinical Sciences. “Because of the support we have for interdisciplinary research, we’re ready to tackle complex problems facing coastal regions.”

What’s Next

The Provost’s Office is currently in the process of developing the first implementation plan for Wolfpack 2030: Powering the Extraordinary. This implementation plan will provide a roadmap for work on strategic initiatives over a three-year period, and will be available for public review in early 2022. Anyone interested in learning about the new strategic plan and its components can visit the strategic planning website for more information. 

Through collaboration with the implementation of the new strategic plan, more academies will be launched that draw on the interdisciplinary expertise of faculty and provide myriad educational and research opportunities for the university community. Additionally, the Provost’s Office and university as a whole will work to coordinate and grow partnerships with other interdisciplinary programs.

NC State strives to build a culture of comprehensive academic excellence by demonstrating how to successfully ingrain interdisciplinarity into campus culture. Through each activity, initiative and unit, the university moves closer to accomplishing its strategic goals and equipping its faculty, staff and students to lead the way in solving pressing societal issues and improving lives in the state and around the world.

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