Pooling resources for better solutions

Opus College of Engineering researchers team up with collaborators beyond the university to tackle global concerns.

By Tracy Staedter

In a complex world where global challenges such as pollution and climate change threaten human health, academic research has never been more important. But the more difficult the problem, the more demanding the solution.

That’s where multi-institutional collaborations come in. Working across diverse disciplines, cultures, methods and expertise, researchers in the Opus College of Engineering are pooling their resources into larger collaborations that strengthen the university in more ways than one and drive discovery that can improve people’s lives. 

“These partnerships benefit from having our outstanding faculty on the teams and, at the same time, provide new opportunities for our faculty and students,” says Dr. Jeanne Hossenlopp, Marquette‘s vice president for research and innovation.

For many engineering researchers, teaming up with a colleague is common practice. “Collaboration has been one of the hallmarks of my career,” says Dr. Brooke Mayer, associate professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering, who has worked with investigators across town at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee as well as across the Atlantic at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.

Last October, Mayer received a $627,000 grant as part of a $25 million National Science Foundation Science and Technology Center initiative that involves seven other research institutions, with North Carolina State University leading the team. Called Science and Technologies for Phosphorus Sustainability, or STEPS, the initiative will address the overabundance of phosphorus in one area and its shortage in another. 

These partnerships “increase Marquette’s reputation in research” and lay “the foundation for further collaborations in the future,” says Dr. Ayman EL-Refaie, Thomas H. and Suzanne M. Werner Endowed Chair in Secure and Renewable Energy Systems. EL-Refaie received two $5 million grants from the Department of Energy to lead multi-institutional teams — one brings together Virginia Tech, General Motors, Niron Magnetics and the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) to develop the next generation of drivetrains for electric vehicles; the second unites Florida State University, Raytheon and NREL to work on state-of-the-art electric drivetrains for hybrid and electric planes. 

Receiving funds from a large federal agency like the DOE can put Marquette on the map, says Dr. Adam Dempsey, assistant professor of mechanical engineering. “Building that reputation is important as an up-and-coming research institution,” he says. Dempsey and his co-investigator, Dr. Casey Allen, associate professor of mechanical engineering, were recently awarded more than $2.5 million from the DOE for a project that includes UW–Madison; Mahle, a German automotive parts manufacturer; John Deere, a farm equipment manufacturer; and ClearFlame Engine Technologies, a diesel-free industrial engine developer, to demonstrate a heavy-duty engine that can use flex-fuel rather than diesel. In June, Dempsey earned another $3.9 million DOE grant to collaborate with UW–Madison, Mahle and Czero Inc. on reducing methane slip in lean-burn engines.

Being a part of such diverse teams brings Marquette’s voice to the table, says Mayer. This is important not just for the individual researcher but for the university and its mission of operating from a Catholic, Jesuit perspective. Engendering cura personalis, or care for the whole person, is part of that mission and plays an important role in solving problems around sustainability, which involves social and generational equity, she says.

“Our most pressing global challenges can’t be solved by a single gadget, person or discipline; these compelling problems require new ways of thinking to develop integrated solutions,” Mayer says.