The endless frontier
Posted Nov 28, 2022
More than 20 years ago, Iowa State doctoral candidate Qijing Zhang pondered over how certain pathogens developed resistance to antibiotics. From that basic question, the microbiologist’s work not only expanded our overall understanding of bacterial resistance to antibiotics, he has become a global expert on antibiotic-resistant bacteria and ultimately developed interventions to stop them.
In recognition of his vast contributions to the field, Zhang was elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences earlier this year. He will tell you that, like much research beginning with a basic, open-ended question, his discoveries didn’t happen overnight. They involved years of testing concepts and gathering data, publishing incremental findings and scouring other researchers’ studies to build on new concepts in a seemingly endless quest to close gaps in the knowledge.
“Fundamental research isn’t easy – you often run into roadblocks,” says Zhang, a Clarence Hartley Covault Distinguished Professor in Veterinary Medicine, the Roger and Marilyn Mahr Chair in One Health, and associate dean of research and graduate studies. “When you do, you have to be persistent, open-minded, patient and have faith in yourself.”
Steering Scientific Endeavor
At one time, companies like Bell Laboratories conducted a good deal of this country’s basic research. As research and technology needs exploded in the 1940s and 1950s and the cost of such private sector research became prohibitive, the U.S. government stepped in.
The Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and other agencies were created not only to fund but also guide research in the public’s interest, with research universities like Iowa State the main drivers of generating knowledge and dispersing it to communities and industry. With discoveries leading to advancements such as life-saving drugs and technology that connects the world, America’s scientific research engine has enabled the country to remain at the forefront of innovation globally.
“As a land-grant university, basic research has always been one of our core tenets,” says Peter Dorhout, vice president for research at Iowa State. “Besides providing access to education, we work to understand nature and technology, with the ultimate goal of transferring that knowledge to industry to benefit society. Iowa State strives to be the trusted partner for proactive and innovative solutions.”
Zhang calls the U.S. research model genius. “Academic research lays the foundation for innovation. It’s open-ended, collaborative and not dependent on converting to revenue-generating interventions.” Instead, “it’s complementary with industry.” For instance, with Zhang’s study of antibiotic resistant pathogens, “We conducted molecular-level studies to see what was taking place within the ‘bugs,’ and collaborated with several chemists to better understand the chemical makeup,” he says. “We also worked with pathologists and scientists from other agencies as well as industry,” which brings the capacity to scale up, market and distribute the resulting therapeutics.
Investing in the Future
The federal government’s investment in basic research recognizes that the generation, distribution and application of knowledge will prove fruitful in years to come by ensuring an eventual supply of marketable innovations and other societal benefits.
Thomas Lübberstedt, the K.J. Frey Chair in Agronomy and director of the R.F. Baker Center for Plant Breeding, uses a technique called doubled haploid technology pioneered by the visionary Iowa State plant scientist Sherret Chase some 75 years ago.
“When I came here, I didn’t intend to focus on the doubled haploid area,” Lübberstedt says. “I needed plant materials and had access to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Plant Introduction Station gene bank in Ames. The doubled haploid tool gave me access to germplasm quicker, so I decided to try it out.”
At its simplest level, the technique allows breeding for inbred lines within just two generations instead of the typical five to eight generations, offering a huge advantage to plant breeders throughout the crop production industry, including breeding corn for bioenergy – almost certainly a research focus Chase would never have anticipated.
Similarly, the development of new vaccines in record time – one of the few bright spots of the COVID-19 pandemic – was made possible by decades of mRNA research. The response to that crisis served as a wakeup call for the nation to reinvigorate its approach to scientific endeavors so the country is better equipped to handle such crises in the future. “As a nation, the U.S. needed to expand its basic research portfolio to get our competitive edge back,” Dorhout says. “At Iowa State, we looked at where the federal government wanted to invest – things like environmental sustainability, economic security, the hydrogen economy and ag cybersecurity – and we knew we had to be ready.”
To respond to those needs, Iowa State began holding Research Innovation Roundtables to bring experts from across campus to share information about their work and spark conversations about potential collaborative visions. According to Dorhout, such big ideas require a broad-based, interdisciplinary team approach.
For example, earlier this year, cyberattacks on food processing plants not only disrupted plant operations but also impacted the entire industry, from producers to consumers, causing spikes in food prices and runs on supermarkets. Iowa State experts from agriculture, supply chain management, computer science and computer engineering met to discuss how to address that challenge.
“In several cases, small seed-grant ideas emerged out of those roundtable discussions to help flesh out their high-risk, high-reward ideas so that they’re attractive to federal funding and industry partners, as well as to students interested in helping solve those big challenges,” Dorhout says.
Offsetting Risk for Reward
Fierce competition for federal funds means that grant proposals submitted to agencies must address the specific research problem posed. As such, governmental agency parameters on specific research projects often don’t leave room to explore interesting tangents. Such restraints can inhibit the real promise of discovery.
“Innovation always carries some risk of failure, and that can be a barrier to the researchers doing the work,” says Jo Anne Powell-Coffman, associate dean for research for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “They won’t get funded if their work is viewed as too risky. But sometimes researchers can envision a way to close the gap between what is known or well-established and what is possible.”
Bridging that gap is one of the goals of the Frontier Science Fund established by Iowa State alumni and donors Tom and Evonne Smith (see “The reward is worth the risk,” sidebar).
The first recipients of the Frontier Science Fund – Kirill Kovnir, associate professor of chemistry; Julia Zaikina, assistant professor of chemistry; and Duane Johnson, Distinguished Professor of Materials Science and Engineering – seek to develop new thermoelectric metal alloys to capture waste energy in the form of heat and turn it into electricity. For example, the exhaust heat from burning gasoline in your car’s engine could be converted to electricity that also could help power the car, extending its range and improving overall efficiency.
Johnson has developed computational models that predict the thermoelectric properties of different alloy compositions. Frontier Science Fund support will be used to refine the predictions by synthesizing promising alloy materials in Zaikina’s lab and characterizing their properties in Kovnir’s lab. Using the early results, additional modeling will be done to further optimize the materials.
“The Frontier Science funds made it possible to initiate a novel search for new materials,” Kovnir says. “This hopefully will alow us to efficiently convert waste heat into useful energy.”
Supporting the Mission
Philanthropy has an important role to play, both in directly funding research, as the Frontier Science Fund does, and supporting the people and resources involved in research.
Marian Kohut studies how various factors, including aging, impact the immune response to influenza viral infection and the influenza vaccine.
“Our lab wants to understand how host factors such as aging, stress, obesity, exercise or any number of other elements influence immune response to respiratory viral infections as well as to vaccines,” says Kohut, who holds the donor-funded Barbara E. Forker Professorship in Kinesiology. “We also look at how these same factors influence immune response in the context of chronic diseases or mental health conditions, such as depression. Our work crosses many disciplines and includes both human and animal studies, depending on which model is best suited to addressing those questions.”
Kohut conducts much of her research in conjunction with the Nanovaccine Institute, established in 2013 with seed funding from Iowa State’s Presidential Initiative for Interdisciplinary Research. Since then, nanovaccine researchers have successfully competed for more than 40 major grant and contract awards totaling about $47 million of research funding. In 2020, the institute moved into new donor-supported headquarters in the Advanced Teaching and Research Building.
One of the greatest benefits of research universities is the workforce they prepare. Students trained in research develop critical thinking skills and the ability to help solve some of the most complex problems facing society. “Student involvement is essential to continue to grow our talent pool for future research – it’s part of our commitment to be the most student-centric leading research university,” Dorhout says. Private support ensures Iowa State attracts the most promising undergraduate and graduate students here to work with researchers such as Zhang, Lübberstedt, Kohut and others, who are forging new paths in their fields.
It’s impossible to predict the innovations that may eventually arise from research discoveries. But supporting talent, resources and basic research will ensure that discoveries and innovations continue to emerge from the scientific research enterprise – making the rewards to society well worth the risk.