The National Science Foundation and Delaware’s congressional delegation announced Thursday that the Delaware EPSCoR program has been awarded a new five-year, $20-million Research Infrastructure Improvement (RII) grant.

EPSCoR, which stands for Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, is a congressionally mandated federal program to help states develop their research initiatives and institutions. In Delaware, the program focuses on enhancing environmental science, engineering, social science and policy research in support of the state’s goal of achieving a sustainable environment and a prosperous economy.

In addition to the federal award, the state of Delaware has committed an additional $4 million in support of Delaware EPSCoR between 2013 and 2018.

The grant is the third RII grant awarded to a consortium of higher education institutions in Delaware that includes the University of Delaware, Delaware State University, Wesley College and Delaware Technical Community College.

According to Delaware EPSCoR director and principal investigator Don Sparks, the new grant will enable Delaware to expand upon interdisciplinary research and education efforts that have been initiated with previous support from EPSCoR.

To date, Delaware’s NSF EPSCoR program has resulted in $23 million in direct EPSCoR funding to the state and $38.8 million through leveraged EPSCoR funds and 129 additional research awards to EPSCoR faculty. Nearly 400 journal articles have been published as a result of research associated with EPSCoR.

“The NSF EPSCoR program in Delaware has made notable contributions to the growth of our state’s environmental research and education network and infrastructure,” Sparks said, citing the launch of the Delaware Environmental Institute (DENIN) at UD and the Center for Integrated Biological and Environmental Research (CIBER) at DSU as two prominent examples.

“We expect to see the programs that have been catalyzed by previous support from EPSCoR bearing significant fruit in the next five years as they mature and become more self-sustaining,” he said.

“The latest EPSCoR RII funding provides resources necessary to enhance the state’s research infrastructure and address the topics of sea level rise and renewable energy. Solutions to these societal challenges will be of value to Delaware and the nation,” said Charlie Riordan, vice provost for research at UD. “Importantly, these efforts will expand the impact of environmental research and policy while developing the next generation of scientists and entrepreneurs that will help drive innovation and our economy. ”

Proposed research

Delaware’s successful proposal, titled “Meeting Delaware’s 21st Century Water and Energy Challenges through Research, Education and Innovation,” details the research themes that will be addressed during the term of the grant, which begins June 1.

The overarching research question that project participants will seek to answer is, “How do we sustain water and energy resources in changing and vulnerable coastal landscapes?” Interdisciplinary and interinstitutional research teams have been assembled to address this question in four major thematic areas:

  • The effect of sea level rise on contaminant mobility and cycling;
  • Land use and climate change impacts on water and natural ecosystems;
  • Multiscale environmental sensing; and
  • Innovations in renewable energy.

The grant provides funds to support faculty start-up packages and salaries; postdoctoral, graduate and undergraduate student researchers; travel for fieldwork; cyberinfrastructure, equipment and supplies. In addition, periodic seed grants will be made available through EPSCoR to support promising areas of research and enabling faculty to develop new ideas in preparation for submitting larger grant proposals.

A signature of the Delaware EPSCoR research program will be the inclusion of economic, social science, policy and/or ethics research within each research theme.

“By integrating policy and social sciences into our research programs from the beginning, we hope to elucidate the most viable, cost-effective and ethical response options to the environmental and energy challenges we face, thereby providing decision makers with innovative and implementable solutions,” Sparks said.

The people pipeline

“Research infrastructure involves more than bricks and mortar,” said Amy Slocum, associate director of Delaware EPSCoR. “One of the most important things our NSF EPSCoR funds have done for the state has been enabling us to build a ‘pipeline’ of students and researchers interested in environmental fields.”

The network of participants in the Delaware EPSCoR program totals 194, spread across the four institutions, including 18 new faculty hired since the program’s inception in 2003.

Delaware EPSCoR has also funded 139 undergraduate research interns, with approximately 40 more set to begin their internships this summer. According to Jeanette Miller, Delaware EPSCoR’s director of education, outreach and diversity, the majority of these students are pursuing advanced degrees.

EPSCoR has also sponsored internships with outside partners, including the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC). These positions have enabled advanced students to address real-world environmental policy issues under the mentorship of a professional. The work of one of these interns recently resulted in the passage of legislation removing outdated liability limits on companies responsible for oil spills that affect Delaware.

Delaware EPSCoR’s efforts to increase the flow of students pursuing science and engineering-related studies begins in middle school with summer science camps targeting demographic groups that are underrepresented in technical fields and teacher training workshops.

The four partner institutions have also developed a network of personnel and programs that provide clear pathways for students from a wide variety of backgrounds to pursue careers in science, engineering and technology, thus providing the state with a well-educated technical workforce.

“The new grant seeks to build on these accomplishments by expanding our outreach into Delaware schools,” Miller said. “We are planning a series of outreach visits to school sites that involve our faculty and students from throughout the EPSCoR network.”

Economic development

UD’s course in entrepreneurship was launched under the auspices of EPSCoR and has trained nearly 1,000 students so far in the skills they need to become entrepreneurs. Hundreds of virtual companies have been created as part of the class and some have gone on to become real businesses.

One of these students was Wayne Westerman, who had developed a new computer interface technology along with UD professor of electrical and computer engineering John Elias. Their company, Fingerworks, was later sold to Apple Inc. as the basis for today’s interactive screens on cell phones and tablets.

Three start-up companies in Delaware have resulted from new technologies developed through EPSCoR-sponsored research. Delaware EPSCoR is responsible for creating or sustaining more than 160 jobs in the state. UD’s Office of Economic Innovation and Partnership (OEIP) was catalyzed by the EPSCoR program and has assisted EPSCoR researchers in obtaining nine patents with 35 more pending.

In the next grant cycle, OEIP will launch a new program called Spin-In, which will provide students and faculty with the opportunity to work closely with industry partners to conduct the research needed to commercialize new technologies.

“Delaware’s track record of accomplishments under the EPSCoR program has been exceptional,” Sparks said. “With the new grant, we hope to provide even greater returns to the citizens of Delaware, the region and the nation.”

Article by Beth Chajes | Photos by Evan Krape, Doug Baker and Kathy F. Atkinson