Research for the Millennium

The Millennium Science Complex is one of Penn State's most visible examples of long-standing commitment to interdisciplinary research.

It will take more than a single Thomas Edison to create the treatments and technologies necessary to solve the world's biggest challenges. It will take teams of Edisons, Curies and maybe even a few Einsteins.

The real question for research universities across the country and around the world is: How do you inspire and manage the collective brainpower of dozens of researchers from a range of fields and interests to make these discoveries?

Penn State has been a leader in creating the organizational, physical and philosophical space for multidisciplinary researchers to collaborate and create.

Facilitating Collaboration

The Millennium Science Complex, which opened in 2011, is one of the University's most recent, and now one of the most visible, examples of its commitment to interdisciplinary research.

Carlo Pantano, director of the Materials Research Institute and Distinguished Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, says the building itself was designed to bring together teams of researchers who have a variety of expertise and backgrounds to tackle projects that may one day create products or treatments that show up anywhere, from electronic stores to cancer laboratories.

Research associate preparing a sample

A research associate prepares a sample

Jennifer Gray, a research associate at Penn State's Materials Research Institute, prepared a sample for examination in a transmission electron microscope. The Materials Research Institute and the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences are housed in Penn State's Millennium Science Complex.

Image: Patrick Mansell

Researchers from five academic colleges and 15 departments from the physical, engineering and life sciences are part of the Materials Research Institute, which along with the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, has found a new home in the Millennium Science Complex.

Before architects even had a chance to sketch plans for the building, Pantano and his colleagues began discussing how they could facilitate collaboration.

"Collaboration depends a lot on the environment, but it also depends on how you promote that environment," Pantano says. "For example, that's why you'll see students sitting with other students here."

At the complex, graduate students from different disciplines are grouped together in common areas to increase the possibility of collaborations.

Titan microscope installation at Penn State March 2013

Titan microscope

The Titan scanning/transmission electron microscope will greatly enhance the capabilities of researchers and will take imaging and chemical characterization to a new level with subatomic resolution.

Image: Patrick Mansell

The Titan Cubed transmission electron microscope allows researchers a chance to investigate the world at the atomic and nanoscale level.

Shared Equipment

Another way that the facility itself inspires collaboration is through the use of shared equipment.

It's not just an economical way to distribute the tools necessary to conduct research, according to Josh Stapleton, operations manager of the Materials Characterization Lab at the complex.

Stapleton says that when researchers from various fields use the same leading-edge instrumentation, they can compare notes with each other and with staff members who operate the devices.

The staff can also use their expertise to help scientists integrate the instruments into their own areas of research, according to Stapleton.

"Staffing our laboratories with experts on the instrumentation in the lab allows researchers to add new tools to their tool box," he explains. "If a researcher encounters new problems and their traditional tools are no longer working, they can access staff members who have expertise to offer them new approaches."

The facility includes the latest research equipment. For example, crews recently installed a Titan Cubed scanning and transmission electron microscope, one of the few of its kind in the country. The microscope allows researchers a chance to investigate the world at the atomic and nanoscale level.

Electron microscopist studying a sample

Electron microscopist studying a sample

Electron microscopist Trevor Clark examined a jet-engine soot sample in the transmission electron microscope lab at Penn State's Materials Research Institute. Clark leads a group of experts in supporting interdisciplinary collaboration in the state-of-the-art research facility.

Image: Patrick Mansell

Researchers and engineers from a range of disciplines are studying the brain to find treatments for epilepsy and to discover materials for brain interfaces and nerve regeneration.

The Pay-off

Pantano is beginning to see dividends on this investment in integration and collaboration.

Researchers from both the Huck Institutes of Life Sciences and the Materials Research Institute are already collaborating on big projects.

Engineers and plant biologists in the Center for Lignocellulose Structure and Function, for instance, are studying the nanostructure of plant cell walls. Their discoveries may lead to more sustainable energy sources, such as biofuels.

More than a dozen researchers and engineers from a range of disciplines are studying the brain to find treatments for epilepsy, discover materials for brain interfaces and nerve regeneration and map the structure of the brain.

"It's not the big things that make me think we're on the right track," Pantano says. "It's the conversations I hear between faculty members while I am walking around the building or listening to students talking about projects while they're at the water cooler."