Hot on the Trail of the Next Big Idea

Bridges that can diagnose and fix their own structural problems. Doctor visits where full genome analyses are part of the routine workups. Power systems that are no longer reliant on huge, central utility companies, but instead are run by individuals who can generate and store their own power.

It’s the stuff of futuristic novels, and faculty from the UVA School of Engineering and Applied Science are working together to identify the best big ideas to pursue next.

Approximately 125 faculty members gathered for an all-day retreat in December. Teams presented 18 concepts for highly focused, interdisciplinary research efforts that could target pressing societal challenges, and could benefit from additional faculty and resources. Topics ranged from smart manufacturing to laser materials and biomedical data sciences.

“This was an opportunity for us to come together as a research community and learn from what our colleagues are doing,” said Professor Pamela Norris, Executive Associate Dean for Research. “It was very energizing to feel the excitement in the room.”

A Cross-Cutting Research Development Committee, which includes leaders from across the Engineering School as well as a supporter from the UVA Engineering Foundation Board of Trustees, is leading a monthly, post-retreat workshop series for faculty.

“It is important for us to continue to give each other feedback and refine our ideas, as we work through the process of selecting the next, cross-cutting research and hiring initiative,” Norris said.

Dean Craig Benson’s vision for UVA Engineering includes doubling the size of the school’s research program over the next seven years, with a focus on powerful, interdisciplinary initiatives in areas where UVA has established research strengths.

Benson and faculty members from multiple departments launched this fall a cyber-physical systems initiative, for which the school is recruiting eight faculty members and at least 12 graduate students. Cyber-physical systems refers to cyber systems that interact with and help control the human environment. Examples are devices that monitor human activities and health; unmanned aerial vehicles; automated vehicles and infrastructure systems; and smart buildings.

Cyber-physical systems research has been a strength for the Engineering School, where more than a dozen researchers already are making significant contributions to the field.

Ongoing faculty brainstorming and collaboration will be crucial to development of other areas of research strength.

John Lach, Chair of the Charles L. Brown Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, said, “We have an opportunity to create distinctive areas of world-class excellence.”