The Next Big Thing
With the recent opening of Kent State’s new Integrated Sciences Building, the university is well-positioned to be part of promising scientific breakthroughs in the 21st century.
By Lisa Abraham
In 1965, laboratories at Kent State University were filled with scientists doing intensive study of liquid crystal. Since then, the innovations they helped develop have resulted in the material being used to create devices ranging from digital watches and pocket calculators to flat-screen televisions.
Now state-of-the-art classrooms and ample laboratory space in the light-filled Integrated Sciences Building, which opened in September 2017, are providing a foundation for a new generation of scientific discovery at Kent State.
The new building, attached to Williams Hall, brings together faculty researchers and students from various science disciplines to work and learn side-by-side. “Big ideas will certainly be born here,” says James Blank, PhD, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, who notes that more collaborative science research is part of a larger university goal of growing as a public research institution.
“Big ideas will certainly be born here.”—Dean James Blank
For such growth to happen, the university leadership recognized that the buildings along the Science Mall had to be not just improved, but reimagined, to reflect the kind of sharing that already has been taking place among Kent State scientists. Along with the construction of the Integrated Sciences Building, renovations and upgrades were made to Williams, Smith and Cunningham Halls—with more improvements to come.
Over the past decade, enrollment in the sciences has been growing at a fast rate, Dean Blank says. For the fall 2017 semester, 1,295 students were enrolled in biological sciences, with more than 600 others studying chemistry, physics, biochemistry and biomedical sciences, the other disciplines that use the Integrated Sciences Building.
Increasing science enrollment, attracting top research faculty and raising money to fund that research are all pieces of an interdependent puzzle, he explains. Each component is needed to advance Kent State’s reputation as a university where science innovation and breakthroughs are prevalent.
Gone are the days of a few powerhouse universities conducting the bulk of the country’s science research, Dean Blank says. Laboratories big and small at every public institution will be part of the breakthroughs in such areas as cancer, heart disease and neurological disorders.
By creating one building that features shared laboratories for all scientific disciplines, any perceived barriers between the sciences have disappeared.
To have those kind of discoveries, though, science has to be viewed in a more collaborative fashion to better reflect the actual work that takes place in university research labs.
“Integrated” may be a new term on a building, but it is nothing new when it comes to the way faculty operate, says Soumitra Basu, PhD, chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.
Chemists, physicists and biologists routinely work together on research, Dr. Basu says, and scientific discoveries are increasingly dependent on cross-disciplinary collaboration.
“In the old days [scientists] were very siloed,” he says. By creating one building that features shared laboratories for all scientific disciplines, any perceived barriers between the sciences have disappeared.
“Students are seeing that there are no boundaries here,” says Dr. Basu. “They will get trained with the mindset of working together to solve larger problems.”
To reflect on the promise that scientific breakthroughs hold for finding solutions to those problems, we asked the heads of the four science departments housed in the new Integrated Sciences Building to tell us the scientific advances they expect to see within the next 10 years.
Dr. Basu’s Research focus: Understanding how DNA and RNA control our genes and regulate fundamental cellular processes; and using such molecules for therapeutic purposes to treat cancer and neurological disorders, including Parkinson’s disease.
The field of chemistry often brings to mind the stereotypical image of a lab-coat-wearing scientist hovering over a Bunsen burner surrounded by beakers and test tubes filled with bubbling chemicals.
But chemistry is much less mysterious: It basically covers everything. “We touch chemistry all day from the time we get up to the time we go to bed,” says Dr. Basu. “It’s a very broad field.”
Chemistry is the science of identifying what matter substances are composed of and how the properties of matter interact, combine and change to result in new substances.
Two things will determine the next big invention, Dr. Basu says. A problem in need of a solution will present itself or someone will create something and a need for it will spring from the invention.
Think of the cell phone, he says. No one realized they needed one until they could have it. The product created its own need due to consumer desire. The same goes for electrostatically charged cleaning cloths, which made the Swiffer brand a more effective solution to dust than paper towels.
“The science of chemistry isn’t new,” says Dr. Basu. “Now it’s more what you can do with it.”
“The next big thing will be small.”—Dr. Soumitra Basu
What areas are ripe for discovery within the next 10 years?
Nanotechnology “The next big thing will be small,” Dr. Basu says. Chemistry is at work on a nanoscale. For example, instead of a drug to treat a cancerous liver, there will be a drug targeted to treat an individual cancer cell within the liver.
Dr. Basu’s laboratory is researching ways to identify and treat chemical deficiencies in the brain on the molecular level in an effort to treat patients with Parkinson’s disease or other neurological disorders.
Materials science “We always need new materials,” says Dr. Basu. “Think of how many different types of plastic there are, each with its own best use.”
He predicts that materials providing both a diagnostic agent and a solution will become more prevalent. For example, a drug-coated titanium rod that could be used to fix a broken leg and reduce the risk of infection. Or an agent used in environmental cleanups that could absorb toxins from a chemical spill and purify the site at the same time.
Brain health The brain is the next frontier, says Dr. Basu, because of the prevalence of so many diseases that affect the brain, such as Alzheimer’s—and because we still have much to learn about it.
“The brain is so complex. We can tell what it is composed of, but we don’t know why it functions the way it does,” he says. “Questions as basic as ‘Why do we dream?’ or ‘How does our memory work?’ are yet to be answered.”
Dr. Freeman’s Research Focus: Basic mechanisms involved in lesion formation in multiple sclerosis, with an emphasis on cellular metabolism and signaling cascades leading to neurodegeneration. Also, the development and utilization of high-resolution imaging modalities.
Unlike the wider discipline of biological sciences that looks at all life, biomedical sciences focus primarily on human medical issues, from the makeup of cells to the function of the brain and how outside factors influence human health. “We’re always trying to better understand how the human body functions and ways that we can treat it,” Dr. Freeman says.
He is enthusiastic about the volume of research going on globally in biomedical sciences. What’s more, the brain was recently identified by the National Institutes of Health as the next big research area with a suggested earmark of $4.5 billion over the next 10 years to pay for the study of this incredibly complex organ.
Interaction is routine among researchers, Dr. Freeman says, and in biomedical sciences at Kent State, faculty are drawn from various departments at the Kent Campus, the Northeast Ohio Medical University and the Lerner Research Institute of the Cleveland Clinic. The School of Biomedical Sciences faculty provide graduate training in biological anthropology, cellular and molecular biology, neurosciences, pharmacology and physiology.
Researchers at Kent State laboratories are looking into topics that include the link between hormone levels and the onset of Alzheimer's disease in post-menopausal women, the link between obesity and loss of cognitive function, and Dr. Freeman’s research into mechanisms in the brain that change the way DNA is read, leading to the loss of neurons in those with multiple sclerosis.
What promising breakthroughs do you predict within the next 10 years?
Mapping the brain’s cells “There are hundreds of billions of cells in the brain, and they all have to function in concert with one another,” says Dr. Freeman. “We’re aiming to identify every type of cell that exists in the brain and its function.”
The task may seem monumental, but he believes there are enough researchers at work on the mapping that before long the compilation of all work will paint a comprehensive picture.
Curing cancer “We can introduce genes now into cells,” Dr. Freeman says. “If cancer is caused by a gene [mutation], we are working now to insert the right copy of it to stop that cancer from occurring.” He also has great hope for pluripotent stem cells, which are capable of developing into any cell or tissue the body needs to repair itself (except those that form a placenta or embryo).
With genetic engineering, simple human skin cells can be genetically modified to create pluripotent cells, which can potentially be placed into the body to become any cell or tissue. “Scientists understand how to create these cells now,” he says.
Identifying the role of environmental and lifestyle factors Dr. Freeman’s research already suggests a possible environmental link to the brain mechanisms that cause neuron damage in multiple sclerosis. “With all this research, I think we’re going to realize that we perturbed many environmental and lifestyle factors to such an extent that we’re causing a lot of our own problems,” he says.
Dr. Gleeson’s Research focus: Understanding the physical properties exhibited by a wide variety of complex fluids, such as liquid crystal, polymers and proteins in solution.
Throughout history, humans have struggled to understand the big unanswered questions: Where do we come from? How was the world created? How do the galaxy and the solar system remain intact?
Researchers are still seeking to define the nature of the universe. Along the way, the efforts of physicists have resulted in more than one discovery, some on purpose, some by chance.
“The world wide web was invented in a particle physics lab in Switzerland,” says Dr. Gleeson. “The browser system that we use was created for particle physicists to share information with each other. And now it’s used for cat videos.”
Technology begets technology, says Dr. Gleeson, who is confident that the quest to answer the questions of the universe will continue to result in new discoveries. Superconductors, magnets, batteries, solar panels—one way or another, he says, they all started in a physics lab.
Currently Kent State researchers are studying nuclear particle physics as part of the government’s long-range plans to create “big atom-smashing machines.” By studying the collision of heavy atoms, scientists can recreate “a sort of mini Big Bang,” he says. “There are plans for new machines and facilities to study that.”
“Studying the properties of matter and energy at those levels tells us a lot about our universe and also how it began 14 billion years ago,” says Dr. Gleeson. “There are still a lot of unanswered questions.”
Ongoing research also is taking place in soft matter such as liquid crystal and foam materials, and on solid state physics, super- and semiconductors.
What areas are ripe for discovery within the next 10 years?
Energy “Getting more of our energy from the sun will require lots of physics and technological advances in order for it to be cheap, efficient and easily produced,” Dr. Gleeson says. “And then we need to store it to provide energy for places where there isn’t sunlight.”
Biophysics Dr. Gleeson says this area of physics—applying the principles of physics to the problems of living systems—will likely see the most future growth because of its potential for understanding biological issues such as how proteins change their shape. That basic understanding can lead to cures for diseases, breakthroughs in genetics or even growing better plants.
Dark energy/dark matter Discoveries in the 1990s from data collected by the Hubble Space Telescope have led scientists to believe that about 68 percent of the universe is made up of dark energy and another 28 percent of dark matter—both of which remain a mystery. “Twenty or thirty years ago, we didn’t worry about things like dark energy or dark matter,” Dr. Gleeson says. “The more we have found out about the universe, the more we realize how much we don’t know.”
Dr. Leff’s Research focus: Microbial ecology of aquatic ecosystems with emphasis on bacterial ecology of streams.
With a topic as vast as biology—the study of all living things—it’s difficult to pinpoint just one area that could produce the next big breakthrough.
“There’s environmental science, zoology, molecular biology, biomedical research,” Dr. Leff says, rattling off just a few of the areas of study within her department. “Our research spans a wide range of topics.”
With such a variety of subjects to explore, breakthroughs are bound to happen. “The last century was really the century of physics, with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, the race to put a man on the moon and atomic physics,” says James Blank, PhD, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “This century is definitely the century of biology.”
While the fundamental principles of biology won’t change in the future, Dr. Leff predicts that discoveries will come from those who can find new ways to interpret existing data or who can discover ways to research generalities by combining and analyzing the results from different studies.
“The biggest advances will be in things we haven’t thought of before,” she says. “The next big thing will probably come from the students we are educating now. When you bring together different people from different backgrounds, who knows what they might do?”
“This century is definitely the century of biology.”—Dean James Blank
What areas are ripe for discovery within the next 10 years?
Microbiomes Over the past ten years, increasing research on microbial communities—the collection of microorganisms (including bacteria, viruses and eukaryotes) in a specific niche, such as the human gut—has resulted in massive amounts of data being generated and shared, yet much remains to be explored and analyzed.
“A lot of organisms that we can’t see are out there shaping our world,” says Dr. Leff. She predicts that studying the ever-changing microbiome of an organism will further reveal the role of environmental factors versus genetic in diseases such as cancer.
Genomics Gene sequencing determines the order of the chemical pairings or building blocks that make up a DNA molecule. Work in gene sequencing has been conducted for decades, but the publicly funded Human Genome Project only began in 1990. That study, as well as technological advances in computational and sequencing methods, resulted in major strides in gene sequencing over the past 20 years.
Such volumes of data, Dr. Leff says, can lead to new methods or treatments at any level of biology, from creating cleaner water to curing cancer.
Data mining Scientists can now collect larger volumes of data with greater specificity than ever before on any subject. Also, Dr. Leff says, in terms of biomedical advances, meta-analysis of conventional data collected over many years and reported in many separate studies—thanks to more powerful computers and meta-analytics—will make information more accessible for research and can lead to new insights.
Integrated Sciences Building Highlights
Cost: $40 million
Size: 66,000 square feet plus 13,500 unfinished basement space (plans are underway to build it out)
Timeline: October 2015 groundbreaking, September 2017 grand opening
Shared Spaces: Instructional and research laboratories for biological sciences, biomedical sciences, physics and chemistry
Science Mall upgrades: $95 million total, including Integrated Sciences Building construction and extensive renovations to Williams, Smith and Cunningham Halls