It could be the start of a joke: “An engineer, a chemist, a psychologist and an accountant walk into a room.” It also could be how some faculty members at The University of Texas at El Paso start a collaborative effort to utilize space in UTEP’s new Interdisciplinary Research Building (IDRB).
Leaders of the IDRB’s Interdisciplinary Research and Education (IDRE) program will accept applications through 5 p.m. Feb. 28, 2020, from faculty who could be among the first to use the campus’ collaborative research space at the southeast corner of University Avenue and Sun Bowl Drive.
IDRE staff will submit the applications to a committee of nine UTEP faculty members who represent a wide array of disciplines from several UTEP schools and colleges. That group will rank the requests based on technical merit. Those who submitted highly rated applications will speak with UTEP administrators to decide on the logistics of a move into the IDRB.
Interim Provost John Wiebe, Ph.D., and Vice President for Research Roberto Osegueda, Ph.D., will make the final decisions in early April of who will be the first to use the new building.
Researchers will start to move in during the summer, and the building, which has a final cost of $93.5 million and will have 156,000 gross square feet of space when finished, should be operational for the fall 2020 semester.
Amy Wagler, Ph.D., associate professor of mathematical sciences, said she planned to submit two applications. She based one on a National Science Foundation grant proposal that she started several months ago and the other on an ongoing applied research project. Together, both of her applications involve colleagues from each of the University’s colleges.
“The IDRB will be a good intellectual resource on campus,” said Wagler, who said the complex would provide her teams with an appropriate amount of secure space where researchers could meet and work together. “The amount of space is what excites me the most. It will help programs to grow. Perhaps it will generate opportunities to develop more collaborations.”
Wagler’s positive attitude was an example of the interest the IDRB application process has generated since it started in late January, said William Hargrove, Ph.D., interim director of UTEP’s IDRE program. He and his team have conducted several well-attended town hall meetings as well as building tours to acquaint faculty, staff and some graduate students with the IDRB’s capabilities to include wet labs for possible chemical analysis, dry labs for the likes of physics and electronics inquiries, and human research labs for sociology, psychology, health sciences studies and the like.
The IDRB broke ground in April 2017. University officials wanted a state-of-the-art building that could tackle the big challenges of the present and the future in novel ways on a grand scale. Designers planned for a place where great minds from different disciplines could conduct meaningful research.
Two members from the University’s Office of Research and Sponsored Projects: Andrea Tirres, associate director, and Nathaniel Robinson, assistant vice president for facility security, assist Hargrove with the IDRE program along with Julia Bustillos, the program’s administrative assistant. The quartet have visited with faculty members from established researchers to those who have just started their academic careers with regard to the IDRB proposals.
“I expect to get the majority of the applications at the end of the month,” said Hargrove, whose main job is director of UTEP’s Center for Environmental Resource Management. “That’s how it usually goes.”
Robinson said that the faculty he has addressed were excited about the IDRB. He said they were curious how the space could be used and how they could leverage this opportunity. Additionally, many saw the interdisciplinary research aspect as a fun challenge. He said he stressed in his conversations that one of the IDRB’s goals was to scale up the size and scope of the University’s research.
“We recently broke the $100 million window in research expenditures,” said Robinson, who is involved in a handful of interdisciplinary research grants. “Now we have set our sights on $200 million and we’re hoping that the IDRB will help get us there.”
Hargrove stressed that the University would conduct more application requests as space becomes available in the IDRB. He encouraged faculty to continue to look for collaborative opportunities. He said a second call for applications could come as early as this summer or fall. University leaders will base that decision on how much space Wiebe and Osegueda allot during this first round.
The IDRE director added that the selection process could create a domino effect as researchers vacate current lab space for the IDRB. Such moves could generate lab space for other faculty members throughout campus. University leaders have made it clear that the IDRB is a temporary workspace that they will assign to teams for a finite period until a project’s completion. Hargrove said that those decisions would come after discussions between the provost, vice president for research, deans, department chairs and the researchers.
“Every situation will be different,” Hargrove said. “We want everyone to work together because there are a lot of logistical issues to work out.”
On a related note, Hargrove said that faculty members could apply for “seed” grants of up to $20,000 through the IDRE to assist with the formation of research teams and the preparation of more competitive research applications. The grant request is at the end of the “Request for Proposals” form.
While the focus is on the IDRB’s third floor, where faculty will conduct their research, there is more to the complex, which consists of three sections, two of which will be five floors. The other will be four floors.
The first floor, part of which is underground, will house the largest and heaviest pieces of research equipment that will be available to the entire campus. There also will be a modest amount of research space.
The second floor, or “Main Street,” will be the primary floor for the public. It will be accessible from University Avenue and include a café, an auditorium, meeting spaces and a makerspace as well as most of the building’s offices that are for the building and lab managers who will support the research teams. The fourth and fifth floors are empty shells for future expansion.
The University will develop each floor as the need arises and the funds become available. While the floor plans will look similar to the third floor, there would be opportunities to institute additional design elements that will serve future researchers.
Greg McNicol, associate vice president for business affairs – facilities management, said the IDRB would enhance the University’s research capabilities, and added that he especially appreciated the floor plan and the room designs because they accommodate various needs and promote collaboration.
“Research is about solving problems and these teams will be in a different environment,” McNicol said. “You never know who has the right piece of the puzzle.”
Author: Daniel Perez – UTEP Communication