The Advanced Science Research Center will focus CUNY research in five strategic areas at the vanguard of 21st Century global science. They are specialized but inter-related disciplines that are compelling in their promise, important to the nation and build on the strengths the University has developed over the past decade. Two of the five founding ASRC directors have been appointed thus far; other directors and faculty will be named in the months approaching the center's opening in the fall of 2014.
Here are descriptions of the five initiatives and a look at the work of some of the CUNY faculty scientists within those disciplines who have helped shape the ASRC.
Charles J. Vörösmarty
Director, ASRC Environmental
Professor of Civil Engineering
Established in 2008, even before the ASRC's construction began, the Environmental CrossRoads Initiative is already widely known as a pioneering center of interdisciplinary environmental research. The initiative is led by Charles J. Vörösmarty, an internationally recognized expert in global water issues who is the ASRC's first director. He established the initiative after joining CUNY from the University of Rhode Island's Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans and Space, where he was the founding director of its Water Systems Analysis Group.
Under Dr. Vörösmarty's leadership, the Environmental CrossRoads Initiative is dedicated to the analysis of strategic local, regional, and global environmental challenges. It provides a meeting ground where interdisciplinary scientists, engineers and technologists join with policy experts to analyze environmental crises and craft innovative solutions to emerging environmental problems.
As climate change and environmental problems gain a new sense of urgency around the globe, the initiative promotes collaborations between experts from various disciplines. That's the key, says Dr. Vörösmarty, to managing an array of diverse challenges: coping with climate extremes, feeding a population that continues to grow, establishing energy security while preserving biodiversity and ecosystems, protecting human health while sustaining economic development.
The CrossRoads Initiative introduces state-of-the-art scientific knowledge and environmental sensing technologies into ongoing discussion with policy makers.
"In our view, technology becomes not only a tool but also a transformative force for environmental stewardship," Dr. Vörösmarty says.
Director, ASRC Structural
Albert Einstein Professor of Chemistry
Structural biology is positioned at the crossroads of three scientific disciplines, tackling questions inspired by biology, drawing on perspectives of chemistry and using tools provided by physics to take on a wide range of biomedical research.
Structural biologists use their multifaceted approach to examine, in unique ways, the shapes, dynamics and function of proteins and other biological molecules. The knowledge they glean puts them in an ideal position to attack many biomedical research problems, particularly how disease can prevent parts of the cellular machinery from carrying out their proper functions. This work provides a strong foundation for the development of novel therapeutic and diagnostic tools useful for scientific areas as diverse as cancer biology and biochemistry.
Structural biology has played a key role in CUNY’s decade-long resurgence as a research university: There are some 30 teams on seven campuses addressing fundamental questions at the frontier of applied life sciences research. With the appointment of Dr. Kevin Gardner as founding director of its structural biology initiative, the ASRC is poised to both expand and focus CUNY’s role as a major center of research and discovery in this field.
The ASRC Structural Biology Initiative will assemble teams of experts who embrace collaboration—with each other as well as with labs throughout CUNY and beyond. This culture of partnership is a conceptual cornerstone of the entire ASRC, but is especially relevant to the need for structural biology researchers to collectively explore problems that are beyond any single lab’s scope. Examining critical processes that happen quickly and at minute distance scales requires the complementary expertise and techniques of biology, chemistry, physics and engineering. The ASRC will bring these disciplines together and provide researchers with the most advanced core facilities to elevate and expand their work.
These principles are exemplified by the work done in Dr. Gardner’s laboratory. His research focuses on the proteins used by cells to perceive and react to changes in the environments around them. Studying a diverse group of such protein sensors—from oxygen sensors of cancer cells to light sensors in plants & bacteria—has revealed that they share a common signaling mechanism. This suggests ways in which they are naturally regulated, and how they might be artificially controlled—steps leading to the development of new anti-cancer therapies and research tools.
Dr. Gardner’s lab is working with expert biochemists, chemists, cell biologists and engineers to test new applications for these exciting discoveries that owe their start to structural biology but impact well beyond its scope.
A CUNY focus for several years, nanotechnology is science on the tiniest scale—using biological building blocks to control matter at atomic or molecular scales of 1 to 100 billionths of a meter. Nanoscience and nanotechnology are major sources of important developments with a broad range of applications, and researchers at CUNY are working at the forefront of this field. They are using nanotechnology to create extraordinary new materials and devices to advance fields from biomedicine to energy production.
CUNY researchers are developing the ability of nanostructures to be containers for biomolecular systems—leading, for instance, to new methods of delivering drugs. They have used nanotechnology to develop optical probes of biological processes and systems to track particles within cells and organisms.
One of CUNY's leading nanoscientists is Daniel Akins, a professor of chemistry at City College and director of the CUNY Center for Analysis of Structure and Interfaces since 1988. Dr. Akins has patented an inexpensive way of turning a carbon source like methane into cylinders of carbon atoms with extraordinary capabilities. "They have fantastic properties," he says. "They're stronger than steel, conduct better than the best metal conductors and have chemical properties that allow one to attach things to them." Things like gold nanoparticles that can register minute electric currents, turning nanotubes into molecule-sized electronic sensors. Such a sensor could be used, for instance, to develop a system that would alert someone with diabetes to an insulin deficiency. The ASRC's advanced imaging equipment will give Akins an even more precise view of the normally invisible world in which he works.
The technology of generating and using light and other radiant energy forms, photonics is best known for fiber-optic communications, but its potential in a wide range of fields of applied science is vast: From diagnosing cancer without a biopsy to detecting bioterrorism. Researchers also use photonics to explore areas such as plant photosynthesis to advance basic scientific knowledge.
Photonics was chosen as an ASRC flagship initiative because it has become a strength for CUNY—an area that has been expanded over the last several years through the University's "cluster hiring" initiative in the sciences—and because it offers unusual potential for collaboration across disciplines. Photonics research encompasses biology, medicine, physics and technology fields such as computer display and lighting, as well as the futuristic fields of quantum information processing and quantum encryption, in which data reside on single photons, which are to light what electrons are to electricity.
Vinod Menon, associate professor of physics of Queens College, joined CUNY as one of its "cluster hires" in photonics and has quickly established himself at the forefront of CUNY's emerging strength in the field. "You design materials that do not exist in nature," he says, "and you send light through them, and the light behaves in the way you want it to. Or you design a medium so that the light changes the properties of the material, such as by switching between transparent and reflective." Dr. Menon eagerly anticipates using the ASRC's cleanroom and advanced imaging equipment to create new devices and techniques such as the flexible lasers he has developed for use in a light-emitting bandage that accelerates wound-healing.
Exploring and mapping the brain's biochemical circuitry—studying its development, anatomy, functioning and pathology—is one of the most important and expansive fields of 21st Century science. With virtually unlimited avenues of inquiry and potential discovery, neuroscience is already a vast enterprise at CUNY, comprising a network of 55 neuroscience laboratories throughout its campuses. That made it a natural choice as one of the Advanced Science Research Center's five flagship initiatives.
Researchers are at work trying to develop more effective drugs for brain diseases ranging from Parkinson's to Alzheimer's, and for preventing or even reversing paralysis after spinal cord injury. They are studying the mechanisms of depression and the actions of drugs to treat it; addictive behaviors and drug abuse; the development of the nervous system and how we experience vital sensations such as vision and smell.
Among CUNY's leading neuroscience researchers is Marie Filbin, a distinguished professor of biology at Hunter College whose work is focused on the mechanisms of nerve regeneration and how they might hold clues to developing therapies for brain diseases as well as spinal cord injury and ALS. "Everything we find out about regeneration after injury could be applicable to neuron replacement in degenerative diseases," she says. The ASRC's labs will make genetic manipulation easier, she says, "so you can induce a neuron to make more of the molecules that you're interested in." The facilities also "will bring in some top neuroscientists to do their research, and that will be a big plus for me in terms of collaboration and expertise."