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Faculty clusters fuel a culture of excellence at NC State

Assistant Professor Ashly Cabas is part of the Center for Geospatial Analytics, where she uses geospatial analytics to characterize earthquake ground motions and the effects of the spatial variability of sedimentary deposits on the intensity of ground shaking and deformation.


From grappling with a warming climate to navigating the next wave of artificial intelligence, today’s innovators know that solutions to society’s grandest challenges rarely come from a single discipline. At NC State, we recognized this truth early.

In 2011, with the launch of the Chancellor’s Faculty Excellence Program (CFEP), we joined a small group of universities exploring a dynamic approach to collaborating across disciplines: the faculty-cluster hiring model. CFEP attracts the brightest minds from a range of fields and connects them with the resources, facilities and funding support to work in teams — known as clusters — where they can focus their diverse expertise around issues of global importance.

Our faculty clusters support research that not only increases knowledge, but puts that knowledge to use in solving problems and improving our increasingly global society.

“Growing from the university’s 2011 strategic plan and the vision of Chancellor Woodson and university leaders, the Chancellor’s Faculty Excellence Program signifies NC State’s leadership in promoting a culture of cross-disciplinary scholarship in higher education,” said Warwick Arden, executive vice chancellor and provost at NC State. “Our faculty clusters support research that not only increases knowledge, but puts that knowledge to use in solving problems and improving our increasingly global society.”

CFEP began with an initial group of 12 clusters, each aimed at leveraging NC State’s strengths to provide research-based answers to the questions facing our 21st century world. As the program evolved, eight more clusters were added in 2015. Now, 12 years after CFEP’s inception, we can see how the cluster model has expanded interdisciplinary synergy at NC State, all while laying the groundwork for new avenues of growth.


Excelling Across Disciplines

On main campus, in the Center for Geospatial Analytics — a collaboration hub that emerged from the Geospatial Analytics cluster, one of CFEP’s original 12 clusters — researchers work across disciplinary lines applying geospatial data to real-world problems.

“Everything is spatial, everything has a location, and that makes geospatial analytics relevant to any field,” said Ross Meentemeyer, Goodnight Distinguished Professor of Geospatial Analytics and the director of the center’s activity.

CCEE Associate Professor Dan Obenour and other CCEE faculty are involved in the Center for Geospatial Analytics.

The center brings together faculty from seven NC State colleges to ponder far-ranging questions of spatial analysis, like where to place reserve lands to ensure conservation success, which communities face the greatest risks from rising sea levels and how to design cities to support both economic and personal well-being for people. Supplying answers to such questions is a process Meentemeyer calls “end-to-end forecasting” — collecting spatial data, running those data through modeling to predict what will happen next, then feeding those predictions into usable interfaces that can be understood by decision-makers.

“Spatial technologies, like interactive visualizations and online dashboards, can be put directly into the hands of community planners or anyone dealing with risk-related decisions,” said Georgina Sanchez, a research scholar with the center. “We can use these same channels to collect information from them, so there’s always a two-way information exchange.”

Sanchez cited Johns Island, South Carolina — a fast-growing coastal area near Charleston — as a community that’s harnessed the center’s technology to make informed decisions around spatial planning. Through a process called participatory modeling, researchers with the center asked residents of Johns Island to help them identify and map valuable natural and cultural resources, like productive fishing spots and places of historical interest. This input then empowered the researchers to create conservation plans that prioritized resources with the greatest value to stakeholders in the face of looming threats like sea level rise.

Beyond the center’s focus as a hub for faculty research, its Ph.D. program in geospatial analytics and other academic offerings have also sparked opportunities to connect around spatial research at NC State.

“Those students have become a driver for even more interdisciplinarity,” said Meentemeyer. “They come in to do research and then they’re working with faculty and pulling together people from across the university who might not typically work together.”


 Taking a longer view

In recent years, as part of NC State’s Long View Project, university leaders have challenged CFEP faculty to spend even more time envisioning society’s near and far futures, so we can better prepare to solve the problems and embrace the opportunities tomorrow is likely to bring. This effort — supported in part by the Kenan Institute for Engineering, Technology and Science — asks scholars and stakeholders to consider both optimal and sub-optimal scenarios for the coming decades, so that NC State can step confidently toward the optimal. To this end, the efforts of CFEP scholars are already paying off.

In the Global Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (Global WaSH) cluster, researchers apply future-minded, interdisciplinary thinking to a fundamental problem of human health: the lack of clean drinking water and safe sanitation services for a sizable portion of the world’s population. About 2.1 billion people worldwide, including many here in the United States, can’t access safe drinking water from their own homes — a problem that leads to an estimated 850,000 preventable deaths every year. On top of that, 3.5 billion global citizens lack access to adequate sanitation.

“We understand that global problems, like water treatment and sanitation, are complex,” said Francis de los Reyes, the Glenn E. and Phyllis J. Futrell Distinguished Professor of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering and coordinator for the Global WaSH cluster. “These are not just technology problems, engineering problems, policy problems, social sciences problems — they’re all of these things.”

Francis de los Reyes leads researchers in the Global WaSH cluster to help communities around the globe solve pressing problems in sanitation.

To offer solutions, the Global WaSH cluster gathers faculty with expertise in engineering, epidemiology and economics. Like those faculty in the Center for Geospatial Analytics, researchers in this cluster often work directly with decision-makers on the ground. Through a partnership with Mzuzu University in Malawi — a landlocked nation in southeast Africa — cluster faculty train service-minded NC State students as they collaborate with local stakeholders to broaden access to clean water and sanitation services in nearby communities.

In 2022, in a report analyzing the sustainable impacts of the world’s top 200 universities, Times Higher Education ranked NC State fifth in the nation and 50th worldwide for advancing clean water and sanitation solutions.

“We’re not just looking at sanitation problems from an interdisciplinary perspective in a limited sense, or because we’re answering a particular research question,” said de los Reyes. “It’s deeper, it’s more integrated. We’re embedding interdisciplinarity into our culture.”

A version of this story was first published in NC State News.