QUESTION: NJIT’s current strategic plan affirms a commitment to multidisciplinary research. What institutional changes at NJIT are making this commitment a reality?
In keeping with our strategic plan, which is titled 2020 Vision, research at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) is focused on four main areas:
• life sciences and engineering
• sustainable systems
• data science and information technology
• transdisciplinary areas (where the challenges posed by complex systems require multidisciplinary solutions)
Institutionally at NJIT, we have established collaborative, multidisciplinary centers in each cluster in order to better solve real-world problems confronting our society.
For example, one focus in the life-sciences cluster is to develop better protective helmets for soldiers. Another research initiative in the sustainable-systems cluster is to develop specialized membrane technology for energy production, water treatment, pharmaceutical purification and chemical processing.
Our next step is to establish the trans-disciplinary institutes that will help integrate all of the new knowledge and technologies produced by NJIT’s research centers and thereby stimulate even more progress.
Our first trans-disciplinary institute is dedicated to brain and neuroscience research. In the near future, we anticipate establishing institutes dedicated to materials science and to data analytics.
QUESTION: Are these changes a departure from traditional academic research, and if so why is this necessary?
The changes we’ve implemented at NJIT are the essential evolution of academic research. They are not a radical departure from what we always hoped to achieve in the past. The promise of technological, social and economic progress has long been implicit in university research. That expectation is explicit today. The reality is that we expect research to produce benefits for society — such as better treatments for diseases, better energy technologies, and better solutions for environmental protection.
There’s no question that meeting such expectations requires multidisciplinary research. Take the smart phone, a very multidisciplinary innovation. It is a product of integrated advances in numerous disciplines — communications technology, materials science, information science, energy technology, and many other fields.
QUESTION: Does NJIT’s evolving research model help the university obtain external funding?
Another 21st-century reality is that the goal of organizations that provide funding — government, corporations, foundations — is to promote research that is translatable into products and processes that will positively impact society and fuel economic growth. NJIT’s commitment to multidisciplinary research and transdisciplinary development of solutions to meet real-world challenges and opportunities is well aligned with this reality.
QUESTION: Given the trends you describe, how does basic scientific investigation fit into today’s research picture?
In the past, research was often a “bottom up” process, beginning with fundamental or basic inquiries that could possibly yield practical results in the future. Today, we typically begin research with a very specific need for a particular solution clearly in mind. In this case the path toward investigating relevant underlying science is “top down.” Nonetheless, researching a specific solution almost invariably leads to new and unexpected questions and insights at the basic level.
QUESTION: How does the evolution of NJIT’s approach to research benefit students?
Awareness of the seamless connection between academic research and the workplace that most NJIT graduates will enter fosters an appreciation that research is not a one-way path from basic science to application. NJIT graduates learn that research is a balancing of practical technological needs with our desire for foundational knowledge.
At NJIT, students experience a cooperative, research-oriented environment from the time they first come to campus.
Competence in research is an indispensable life skill in every profession, not only in science and technology. It is essential preparation for making significant contributions and succeeding in every field.
Atam P. Dhawan is distinguished professor of electrical and computer engineering and vice provost for research at NJIT.