Research across Florida 2017
No Florida university has been as well sited to take advantage of the state’s massive investment in out-of-state life science research organizations as Florida Atlantic University.
Rather than pump the money into its own public universities, Florida chose, beginning in 2003, to lay out hundreds of millions of dollars to recruit branches of renowned researchers Scripps, Max Planck and Sanford Burnham Prebys to Florida. FAU wound up home to two of the recruits; Scripps and Max Planck have their state-of-the-art buildings on FAU’s Jupiter campus.
The two high-profile institutions came as FAU itself was developing and launching its own med school and raising its life sciences profile. But FAU looks to do more than ride the coattails of its internationally known campus-mates. FAU has made neuroscience one of the university’s four research “pillars.” (The others are healthy aging, environmental and ocean science and sensing and smart systems.)
In 2016, FAU hired Vanderbilt University scientist Randy Blakely to head its newly formed FAU Brain Institute with offices on FAU’s Boca and Jupiter campuses. The institute aims to understand how the brain works and how diseases such as autism, schizophrenia, depression and Alzheimer’s come to be. (FAU President John Kelly says Max Planck CEO and scientific director David Fitzpatrick and Scripps chair Ronald Davis served on the search committee that went after Blakely.)
Blakely brought 12 faculty, post-docs and grad students with him from Vanderbilt, has brought in more since arriving and plans to hire still more. The institute also draws on existing FAU faculty from its four campuses — 52 faculty in all — and 17 affiliate faculty from Max Planck and Scripps.
The Legislature in its past two sessions gave FAU a total of $12 million to develop plans for a building for the Brain Institute. The university needs another $20 million to erect it. Meanwhile, FAU this academic year launches a neuroscience graduate program that aims to have 50 grad students in five years able to pursue Ph.D. studies with FAU and Max Planck researchers. FAU and Scripps already offer a joint M.D./Ph.D. degree.
It helps FAU’s direction that Scripps Florida is heavily invested in neuroscience and Max Planck Florida is devoted exclusively to it. They all share equipment and facilities. “Anything they have is available to us, and anything we have is available to them,” says Kelly. Like Max Planck and Scripps, FAU has put money into microscopes. One of FAU’s first core facilities is cell imaging with $1 million in high-end microscopes and a designation as the only Nikon Center of Excellence in the Southeast United States. Blakely nevertheless cheered the arrival of Max Planck’s super-resolution microscope. “The kind of faculty I want to recruit will be the people that thrive in this environment,” Blakely says.
Thomas Moore, physics professor at Rollins College, received a $371,645 National Science Foundation grant to involve undergrads in original scientific research to settle a topic debated in scientific literature for more than a century: Whether the vibrations of the metal of brass musical instruments affects the sound. Along with students, he and his colleague, assistant professor Whitney Coyle, also will study clarinet reeds to see whether it’s possible to accurately model how they’ll perform when played. The research should provide instrument makers with information on how to improve instruments and make it easier to synthesize the sound of woodwind instruments while contributing to the understanding of the physics of the instrument. Musicians, especially woodwind players, are at the mercy of their instruments. “With a little luck, we will at least understand the issues, if not the solutions,” Moore says.
Design Interactive, an Orlando augmented, virtual and mixed reality company, and Florida Institute of Technology received a $148,924 early-concept National Science Foundation grant to see whether virtual reality- and game-based tech can improve the physical abilities of children with cerebral palsy. Design Interactive and FIT will work with Maitland-based tech company BlueOrb and the non-profit Conductive Education Center of Orlando.