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S.C. schools eager to put $20M National Science Foundation grant to work

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The money has arrived, Prakash Nagarkatti said, and it’s full speed ahead for the 10 S.C. universities that shared a $20 million, five-year grant from the National Science Foundation’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research.

The grant, announced in September, will fund research, program development and faculty hirings to establish the Materials Assembly and Design Excellence in South Carolina initiative, known as Made in SC. The initiative will spur the discovery and development of advanced materials that will continue to drive the state’s thriving manufacturing industry.

Collaborating colleges and universities include the University of South Carolina, Clemson University, the Medical University of South Carolina, the College of Charleston, Furman University, USC Beaufort, Winthrop University, Claflin University, S.C. State University and Florence-Darlington Technical College.

Representatives from those institutions gathered last month in Columbia to celebrate the award and to learn the next steps in putting it to use.

Nagarkatti, vice president for research at the University of South Carolina and the project director and principal investigator, told the group that the NSF program officer overseeing the universities’ efforts “loved” the grant implementation plan and is “going to approve it with some minor tweaks," which were to be submitted by Friday.

“This is an application that we have put together from 10 institutions that are going to work together,” Nagarkatti said. “The goal is greater than the sum of the parts. This is going to be a statewide initiative. We are going to make tremendous progress statewide.”

The money is now being divvied out, said Nagarkatti, emphasizing that 17 new faculty members will be hired at the participating institutions throughout the next five years. 

That impressed John Wheeler, associate provost for integrative science at Furman.

“That is an incredible investment and a testament to what this program can really do,” said Wheeler, who also pointed out the 100 graduate and 200 undergraduate opportunities the grant will help fund. In addition, several hundred high school teachers will have the chance to participate in hands-on research, he said.

“Many of these teachers have never been in a real research experience before. This is great opportunity from that standpoint,” Wheeler said.

Rajendra K. Bordia, professor and chair of the materials science and engineering department at Clemson and co-principal investigator for the project, is most excited about the opportunities for collaboration, both between the schools and beyond the academic environment. Made in SC will provide support for corporations operating in South Carolina such as BMW, Boeing, IBM, Michelin and the Savannah River National Laboratory.

“On the science side, we have a real opportunity to interlink and connect these different pockets we’ll be working on,” Bordia said. “That’s one category. The other is collaboration among our institutions. There are 10 partner institutions, and they have the widest possible spectrum of strengths. Some universities are very strong in research. Some universities are very strong in the way they educate their undergraduate students. Some universities are very strong in how they recruit the most diverse group of students they can find. With this integration, we hope to learn from each other.

“The third integration is with industrial partners like Savannah River National Lab. We’re hoping this kind of a big award gives a platform to start doing that at a much broader level rather than one person at a time with these outside entities.”

The overarching goal, Bordia said, is to catapult South Carolina from a state where things are made to the state where national and international companies base their research centers and headquarters.

“What we hope will happen is that five, 10 years down the line, our state will be recognized as a true leader, a true partner in this area of materials research and education,” Bordia said. “It’s not that we are going to impact the auto industry or we’re going to impact the aerospace industry or the biomed industry. We will impact all of them, because they all rely on new, advanced materials.”

The science funded by the grant will address four areas:

  • Optical and magnetic materials for next-generation information and computing systems.
  • Responsive polymers — materials that interact with and respond to the environment, like “self-healing” materials and paints — and lightweight, low-cost sensors.
  • Biomaterials that interact with the human body, such as coatings for joint implants and materials for tissue engineering and regeneration.
  • Infrastructure for computational modeling to accelerate materials research and development.

Robert Jones, Clemson provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, lauded the 10 educational institutions for focusing on a relevant topic with immediate applications for South Carolina. He also said emphasizing materials research and development could help bring more women and minorities into engineering and science fields where those demographics are underrepresented.

“Entrepreneurship and innovation cuts across everything, and you are tapping into that new trend and that new talent,” Jones said. “It’s a good time in South Carolina to have such a great program to help provide the juice and the energy and the resources to help drive that collaboration forward.”

This story first appeared in the Dec. 4, 2017, print edition of the Columbia Regional Business Report.  

Contact Melinda Waldrop at 803-726-7542.

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