Iowa State announces recipients of first round of PIRS research seed grants

The Office of Vice President for Research

Projects launched by the new Presidential Interdisciplinary Research Seed Grant (PIRS) program will take on an array of challenges – from crop diseases to human health to the resiliency of spacecraft materials.

PIRS supports the beginning stages of new interdisciplinary research that has strong potential to attract external funding. The awards are designed to support high-risk, high-reward projects that bring together researchers from different disciplines to take the first steps toward groundbreaking research. That can include collecting pilot research data, organizing research workshops, and building partnerships with other research organizations.

Funding for PIRS is provided by the Office of the President and an endowment from the Mary G. Miller estate honoring her mother, Mary N. Miller.

“Investments in the beginning stages of interdisciplinary research proposals are vital to increasing Iowa State’s capacity to develop transformative research thrusts that create new knowledge and have a direct impact on society,” said vice president for research Sarah Nusser. “We are pleased to announce the inaugural set of PIRS projects, and are grateful to President Leath and the Miller family for their support of these exciting new lines of inquiry.”

Six projects received PIRS support:

   Anti-fungal nanoparticles to treat plant disease

Gary Munkvold (plant pathology and microbiology) and Balaji Narasimhan (chemical and biological engineering) aim to use nanoparticles containing antifungal agents to help treat seedling diseases. Using nanoparticles will slow the degradation of seed treatment fungicides in soil, prolonging their effectiveness.

Biological engineering potential of the maize seed

Alan Myers (biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology), Paul Scott (agronomy, U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service), and Erik Vollbrecht and Philip Becraft (genetics, development and cell biology) will host a symposium and workshop at Iowa State where 30 laboratory directors from around the world will collaborate on the biological engineering of maize seeds, which impact yields and nutrition.

Nanocrystals fine-tuned for wide use

Jim Evans (physics and astronomy) and Wenyu Huang and Javier Vela (chemistry) will delve into nanocrystals, microscopic crystalline particles that – when controlled in composition, size and shape – have a wide range of uses from batteries to catalysis to biomedical fields. The team’s research could lead to enhanced control over nanocrystal structure and properties.

Synthetic biology toward improved human and animal health

Gregory Phillips (veterinary microbiology and preventive medicine), Thomas Mansell (chemical and biological engineering), and Alan DiSpirito and Shweta Shah (biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology) will form an interdisciplinary team to apply synthetic biology – a combination of molecular genetics, biochemistry, engineering and computational science – to offer solutions leading to improved human and animal health, including rapid detection of microbial pathogens and development of new antimicrobial agents.

Mass-producing tough materials for resilient tools

Liming Xiong and Ashraf Bastawros (aerospace engineering) and collaborator David McDowell (Regents’ professor and Carter Paden Jr. Distinguished Chair in Metals Processing at Georgia Institute of Technology) aim to mass produce extremely tough, strong and ultralight metallic materials with a wide scope of use. Applications of these materials range from resilient machine tools and spacecraft to energy generation and anti-armor penetrators.

Microsystem’s potential to revolutionize brain disease study

Long Que (electrical and computer engineering) and Don Sakaguchi (genetics, development and cell biology) will develop a new platform that avoids the drawbacks of current in vivo approaches by using automated microsystem chips. This project could revolutionize medicine and improve the understanding and management of brain diseases.

PIRS projects are eligible for a two-year, $25,000 per year award for many forms of early-stage research and scholarship.

Applications for the next round of funding are due Oct. 31, 2017. More information on the program and applications are available online.