From examining exoplanets to learn more about the origin of the universe to using nanotechnology to create an inexpensive test for tuberculosis, George Mason University’s research impacts the world.
This year, for the first time, research funding surpassed $221.4 million, an all-time high for the university that is well on track to meet Mason’s strategic goal of $225 million by 2024. That’s an 18.87 percent increase over 2019 when the university reported $186.3 million in research expenditures to the National Science Foundation Higher Education Research and Development (HERD) survey. The total includes funds provided by federal and state government entities, industry, nonprofit organizations, and the university itself.
“Mason has a strong tradition of conducting research of consequence, from our pioneering work in cybersecurity decades ago to developing ways of testing for the coronavirus today,” says Mason President Gregory Washington. “We have grown our research portfolio significantly in recent years as more entities seek out productive partnerships with the largest and most diverse public university in Virginia.”
“Mason has strategically pursued the goal of elevating research by supporting our community as they engage in high-impact research, scholarship, and creative activities across all of our disciplines,” says Aurali Dade, interim vice president for research, innovation, and economic impact. “The continued growth in expenditures—more than doubling since setting the goal in 2014—is very impressive and reflects the deep commitment and expertise of our faculty and their willingness to engage in new partnerships on emerging topics.”
On Becoming a Top-Tier Research University
Mason was first ranked among the highest research institutions in the country by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education in 2016 and then again in 2018. By earning the “very high research” (R1) designation, Mason is among an elite group of 131 institutions known for performing at the highest research level in terms of research productivity and impact. And Mason is the youngest university on the list.
As most large research problems are multidisciplinary, the university has organized much of its research enterprise around three institutes: the Institute for Biohealth Innovation (IBI), the Institute for a Sustainable Earth (ISE), and the Institute for Digital InnovAtion (IDIA).
These institutes bring together hundreds of Mason researchers from different academic fields under broad topics—health, sustainability, digital innovation—and build communities of research and practice that encourage collaboration. They also connect faculty and student researchers with other key players, such as policymakers, businesses and organizations, and potential partners and investors.
This organizational structure not only serves as a catalyst for new research projects, but it can also help break down institutional walls and disciplinary boundaries, says Leah Nichols, ISE executive director. “For a certain project, you might need an economist and an engineer, and this model helps [make] that happen.”
In addition to the institutes, the Office of the Provost, in collaboration with the colleges and schools, also supports transdisciplinary centers for advanced study led by multidisciplinary faculty working together to address complex problems. These include the Center for Adaptive Systems of Brain-Body Interactions, the Quantum Science and Engineering Center, the Center for Resilient and Sustainable Communities, the Center for Advancing Human-Machine Partnership, and the Center for Humanities Research.
Taking that collaborative model a step further, the university has also established initiatives that bring together researchers working within a particular arena. The first of these is the newly formed Military, Veterans, and Families Initiative, which combines research as well as university services that support active-duty servicemembers, veterans, and their families.
Translating the New Technology into Products
As the university’s body of research has grown so has the number of inventions, technologies, and innovations being patented by Mason faculty and students. Over the past five years, Mason’s patent portfolio has grown by 50 percent and includes a number of innovations that are helping change lives, such as cancer treatments, medical devices, and cybersecurity tools, to name a few.
But having an idea isn’t enough. Researchers need help developing their discoveries into a product or service—that’s where Mason’s Office for Technology Transfer comes in. This office helps facilitate partnerships among Mason researchers, industry partners, and entrepreneurs to bring new technologies and other innovations to the marketplace.
As the university’s translational research and commercialization activities are growing, the Office of Technology Transfer is also growing its team. Additional staff will help the office provide broad assistance to Mason researchers and inventors with filing patents and trademarks or copyright documents and negotiating partnerships and licensing agreements to bring new technology to the marketplace.
Securing a patent is a long process, but Hina Mehta, director of the Office for Technology Transfer, says invention disclosures, an early step in that process, are up about 50 percent.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, there were concerns that many types of research would halt or slow. Surprisingly, the pandemic has actually spurred Mason research and is keeping Mehta and her staff busy.
Technology transfer is a long process, she says, and depending on the technology, the path to market can range from two to 10 years. As an example, Mehta cites the Nanotrap technology, created by Mason’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine, that has become an important part of COVID-19 testing.
“The technology was licensed back in 2009, and it suddenly became so valuable because they could apply it to COVID-19,” says Mehta.
She says there is also activity around telehealth licensing out of the College of Health and Human Services because of its relationship to dealing with the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We want our faculty to know that a technological discovery may not be patentable as per patent laws, but it can still fulfill a need in the market,” says Mehta. “Hence, we look at everything from a ‘market need’ perspective.”
About the Researchers
A few of the Mason faculty who are workng on grand challenges are:
- Volgenau School of Engineering’s Celso Ferreira leads Mason’s Flood Hazards Research Lab , which focuses on developing innovative water resources and coastal engineering ideas, methods, and systems aimed at restoring and improving urban infrastructure and society resilience in the National Capital Region, the Chesapeake Bay, and beyond.
- The College of Health and Human Services’s Farrokh Alemi is the author of the widely used Multimorbidity Index, which is a tool for assessing the prognosis of patients from their history of illness. He has worked with diverse groups of patients including children, nursing home residents, and patients with diabetes, major depression, heart failure, anemia, hypertension, trauma, drug abuse, and other diseases.
- The College of Education and Human Development’s Brenda Bannan co-leads one of Mason new transdisciplinary centers, the Center for Advancing Human-Machine Partnerships  (CAHMP), which supports transdisciplinary researchrelated to complex human-machine partnerships with automated, artificial intelligence with autonomy striving toward integration of this technology with human systems in the most appropriate, ethical and trusting ways.
- Mason bioengineer Siddhartha Sikdar directs the Center for Adaptive Systems of Brain-Body Interactions, which aims to improve the function and quality of life of individuals with physical and psychosocial disabilities ranging from chronic pain and mobility impairments to addictive behaviors.
- Robinson Professor Spencer Crew served as interim director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African America History and Culture (NMAAHC) after its founding director Lonnie Bunch appointment as secretary of the entire Smithsonian Institution. He returned to the classroom this spring where he is teaching the graduate history course Museum Studies.
- The College of Science’s Chi Yang leads a research group that has developed a computational tool called SimDShip, which allows researchers to efficiently explore and evaluate a wide range of novel ship hull forms, ultimately shortening the design cycle and saving fuel consumption costs for the U.S. Navy.
Mason produces a quarterly research newsletter, Mason Momentum. To subscribe, go to bit.ly/gmumomentum .
Top Grants for 2019–20
In 2019–20, Mason researchers were working on more than 1,358 grants from a variety of sources including the U.S. Department of Defense, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, and others. Among the highlights are
- With $15 million in grant funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Mason is establishing a Justice Community Opioid Innovation Network (JCOIN) Coordinating and Translation Center. Mason joined 11 research institutions named to the JCOIN, part of the NIH’s Helping to End Addiction Long-term (HEAL) Initiative, which aims to speed scientific solutions to stem the national opioid public health crisis. Led by University Professor Faye Taxman, the center manages logistics, engages with practitioners and other key stakeholders in the justice and behavioral health fields, and disseminates key findings.
- A multidisciplinary team of Mason researchers is part of a groundbreaking approach funded by the NSF that could change the face of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics graduate education in the future. Mason bioengineering professor Siddhartha Sikdar leads the team that has received a nearly $3 million NSF Research Traineeship grant to train more than 100 PhD students, including some with disabilities, to use state-of-the-art data analytic methods and wearable computing technologies.
- The Arctic is warming at more than twice the rate of the rest of the planet, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg of the changes to come. With the support of a $3 million NSF grant, Mason engineering professors Elise Miller-Hooks and Celso Ferreira, Carter School professor Sara Cobb, and a team of multi-institutional researchers are diving into how melting ice in the Arctic will affect the people, habitats, and social fabric of this remote region.
- Mason researchers have also been on the front lines in the fight against the coronavirus. More than 100 Mason faculty and student researchers are doing their parts to help thwart the COVID-19 pandemic, inventing new diagnostic tools and exploring promising therapies and vaccine delivery systems. The university received seven NSF Rapid Response Research grants designed to get researchers into the field and lab quicker than the traditional grant process.