Presidential Science Initiative

The Presidential Science Initiative began with a simple, but bold, question. What UO research efforts demonstrate proven excellence, as well as tremendous potential to improve human lives? The search for the answer has been challenging, insightful, and inspiring.

President Michael Schill, in partnership with Provost Jayanth Banavar, has consulted with UO academic leaders and examined objective benchmarks of strength to identify four key research areas that could achieve national prominence: materials scienceneurosciencemicrobiome research, and data science. They also asked our faculty how we could make the university a global leader in each one.

We have finished this rigorous strategic planning, and now is the time for action. Construction of the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact, made possible by a $500 million gift from the Knights, marks a tipping point for the university. The Knight Campus has redefined what is possible, shining a light on our research strengths and challenging us to make innovative discoveries that directly impact our lives.

To help us leverage this new center of scientific innovation and education, and to become the best in these four key areas, we will be looking to corporations, private foundations, and federal and state agencies. But that won’t be enough. We will only reach our aspirational goals with private gifts—leadership philanthropy from individuals who recognize the importance of focused, transformative investments.

These four areas represent tremendous potential for excellence. They also offer great promise for successful collaboration with other UO academic areas, the new Knight Campus, and Oregon Health and Science University. Ultimately, they will lead to new solutions that prevent and cure disease, promote health and wellness, and better our lives.

Neuroscience

All your thoughts, feelings, and perceptions are created by neural circuits—complex connections among the billions of neurons that compose the human brain. UO researchers are working to decode brain functions to learn how these circuits generate behavior and cognition. Their work could lead to new treatments for learning disabilities, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, mental illness, and more.

Founded in 1979, the UO’s Institute of Neuroscience (ION) is a highly-collaborative group of biologists and psychologists working to reveal the neural mechanisms of the mind. They’re exploring how the activity of neurons leads to cognition.

In 2017, David McCormick—a neuroscience pioneer established at Yale’s School of Medicine was inspired to come to UO to take the helm of the institute and chart its new course towards excellence. By recruiting the nation’s leading neural circuitry scientist in the country, the university has raised the bar for its neuroscience aspirations, along with our prospects for recruiting more top researchers.

To leverage these current strengths into an internationally-recognized program, ION scientists will focus on one crucial area of neuroscience—concentrating on excellence at the “mesoscale” (middle-scale) that links molecular and cellular studies in animals to human brain imaging and behavior. Donor investments will transform ION’s research of the development and nature of the human brain, laying the foundation for new knowledge that will impact the world and improve human lives.

Materials Science

The science of stuff—the chemical and material building blocks of everything we use—promises to make our lives easier and better. It may also help to solve some of society’s most vexing environmental problems, such as how to generate sustainable energy or meet our daily needs without depleting precious natural resources.

We live in a world of chemicals and materials, and we rely on them every day. The scientific challenge to design the next generation of these building blocks offers exciting opportunities to improve the human condition. Some of the possibilities that our scientists imagine include chemical sensors to detect diseases earlier, alternatives to dangerous chemicals used in manufacturing, and clean and safe energy (along with the technology to use it more efficiently).

UO scientists literally wrote the book on green chemistry, and our materials scientists have a proven track record of moving discoveries from bench to marketplace. For years, they’ve been applying basic science to develop new products and launch businesses.

Because of this emphasis on entrepreneurship and innovation, materials science is poised to benefit in unique ways from the new Knight Campus, and vice-versa. Leadership investments in this area will expand the UO’s presence as an international leader in this area, and will help create innovative materials, new products, and spinoff companies.

Microbiome Science

Within each of us exists an entire ecosystem of microorganisms, called a microbiome. Scientists in the rapidly accelerating field of human microbiome research are discovering how these microbes form an intricate ecosystem inside the body. This research reveals that microbes are not merely pathogens that the body (or the physician) tries to destroy, but parts of a network that interact with our body’s cells in complex ways.

Individual microbiomes profoundly affect our health and well-being. For example, scientists have now linked disturbances in these ecosystems to diabetes, autism, and more. However, little is known about how they become perturbed or how they cause disease (or promote health).

The UO is emerging as a leader in this field, and researchers in our Microbial Ecology and Theory of Animals (META) Center are exploring novel ways to study microbial communities within a host. The META Center, a National Institutes of Health Center of Excellence, is dedicated to understanding how animals, including humans, and their associated microbes function as systems.

We’re already at the forefront of this cutting-edge research area, and UO scientists have made important discoveries that shed new light on human disorders such as inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, and autism spectrum disorders. Further philanthropic investment would rapidly accelerate our work, establishing the UO as a national leader in this burgeoning field.

Big Data

Data science will enable and accelerate each of the other three presidential initiatives—as well as other important research across the university. When we explore the vast networks of neurons in the brain, the cells that create our microbiome, or materials at the molecular level, we generate vast amounts of data. Gathering and storing these extremely large data sets is essential. But that’s just the beginning.

Extracting value from voluminous and complex data (and sharing it in meaningful ways) requires the tools and expertise to find patterns, trends, and associations. Data scientists will enable UO researchers to conduct their experiments, but they will do more than keep the hard drives backed up. They will conduct experiments on the experiments, adding value by helping their colleagues gain useful insight and improve their research methods.  

The university has existing strengths in data science among many current faculty members. Another advantage is our collaborative approach and lack of traditional barriers among fields—in part, the result of our size and the absence of separate schools of engineering and medicine. Data science is a nascent field, and represents an investment opportunity that could very quickly establish the UO as a national leader.

For more information, please see the Presidential Initiative in Data Science page.