Bluegrass Science: Revving Up the Economy Through Research in the State of Kentucky
This is a sample blog post composed at the March 5, 2013 NSF “Science: Becoming the Messenger” workshop in Louisville, Kentucky.
When people think about the state of Kentucky, the first instinct is probably to picture a scene of mint julep sipping at the Kentucky Derby. Sure, the horses might be fast–but the living is slow and easy.
But if you’re paying attention to the state’s scientific endeavors, you get a very different picture: one of dynamism. Currently, Kentucky is finishing out a five year, $ 12.5 million grant–with $ 5 million in state matching funds–from the National Science Foundation’s EPSCoR program (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research). The investment is designed to grow research in some of the most promising areas where Kentucky researchers have built-in expertise—such as nanotechnology, bioengineering, and ecological genomics. But the grant hasn’t just increased the state’s research capacity—it’s also contributing to the Kentucky economy. That’s no small thing in a state whose per capita income ($ 23,033) lags the national average ($ 27,915), and which also ranks well behind most U.S. states in patents per capita.
Over the last eight years, NSF funds have created 377 research jobs at Kentucky institutions. And that’s just for the scientists doing the work (and those who support them), so it only begins to describe the full economic impact. Consider: In 2011-2012 alone, EPSCOR-supported Kentucky researchers reported nine pending or awarded research patents, for innovations in areas ranging from nanoribbons to tissue culturing. Three of those patents were licensed to General Motors.
In fact, when you break down the current NSF investments in Kentucky, the future economic potential leaps out at you. Let’s take them in sequence: the study of advanced materials, research on bioengineering, and finally, studies in ecological genomics.
Advanced materials research includes both nanotechnology research–designing matter at the molecular and atomic scale–and also a range of other endeavors. There’s great economic potential here: For instance, one recent Kentucky patent application relates to a new software innovation that will greatly assist in the creation of tiny but complex three dimensional structures for use in the semiconductor industry and other industries. Or consider another promising line of Kentucky research: Using graphene, a carbon based substance, to design low cost sensors to detect chemicals.
And that’s just one of our promising research areas. For another, consider the field of bioengineering, which is about learning how to construct living tissue, and ultimately living organs, for medical purposes such as growing a new lung, kidney, or even a heart. We don’t know how to do that yet, but Kentucky scientists are tracing the intermediate steps—for instance, getting a better understanding of how cells communicate with one another through chemical signaling, a critical aspect of building successful living tissue. To give one example, University of Louisville researcher Palaniappan Sethu and his colleagues have been building artificial environments where heart and vascular cells can thrive and communicate just as they do in real human bodies. It’s a critical midway step towards ultimately regenerating whole organs—a development that, when it happens, could revolutionize medicine.
A third field of supported research–ecological genomics, or “EcoGen”—is a little bit more blue sky. It involves studying the DNA of living organisms to determine why they evolved the particular genetic makeup that they have. This is not merely of academic interest—for instance, using high speed genome sequencing on the malaria pathogen could help us better understand how to combat the disease. The best way to think about the importance of ecological genomics is that it promises to help us better understand why any number of living organisms that interact with humans–from pathogens to plants and beyond–wind up being the particular kind of protein machines that they are. Once we understand that, our interactions with these organisms–medical, economic, and much more–can only improve.
So next time you’re tuning in for the Kentucky Derby, just remember–there’s a science derby, too, happening here. And we’re off to the races.
Thanks to Liz Knapp of Kentucky EPSCoR for help composing this post.