New College of Sciences at NC State combines science, math to benefit research

relder@newsobserver.comJuly 4, 2013 

— N.C. State University’s College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences became the College of Sciences on Monday, upending the traditional academic structure to create a space where big data and life sciences can work together.

A strategic planning task force recommended the move in 2012 to accommodate the increasing overlap between scientific research and mathematical analysis in such areas as genetics, nanotechnology and environmental science.

“N.C. State has a long history of strength in math and computer science, and we are developing our strengths in biological sciences,” university Provost Warwick Arden said. “So it was a natural for us to encourage those interactions.”

The reorganization combines about 2,000 students in biology, genetics, microbiology and toxicology departments – formerly part of the College of Agriculture & Life Sciences – with 800 mathematics and physical sciences majors.

Arden said credit hours and majors will remain the same, and students should not see changes in classes or instructors.

“We designed it so it would be seamless for undergraduates,” Arden said.

About $2 million in annual grants and other dedicated funding sources will make the move along with the faculty and students to the College of Sciences. The funds will be replaced in the Agriculture & Life Sciences budget by university reserves.

“We are not asking for new resources,” Arden said.

The new college’s $95 million budget comes from federal, state and private sources.

There are 575 faculty, staff and postdoctoral researchers assigned to the College of Sciences – 180 coming from agriculture and the others from physical and mathematical sciences.

The College of Agriculture & Life Sciences will maintain its life sciences designation, focusing on areas of applied science such as plant biology and entomology.

Ed Vargo, head of the entomology department, said his colleagues have been generally supportive of the move.

“I don’t think anyone sees it as a threat to our college and what we do, although some have been wondering what it was all about,” Vargo said.

400 research projects

The new college has 400 active research projects underway that generate $40 million per year in research grants, according to university officials.

Arden said more grants should be available as a result of the reorganization.

“Federal granting agencies are looking for interdisciplinary programs using big-data research,” Arden said. “It’s a major thrust nationally, and we are well positioned to get out in front of this.”

Dean Daniel Solomon, head of the new College of Sciences, said he believes the reorganization will open new doors for research and discovery.

“Many of the world’s greatest problems in health, energy production and environmental sustainability are incredibly complex, but by working together across disciplines we improve our ability to solve them,” said Solomon, who holds a Ph.D. in statistics and served as dean of physical and mathematical sciences for 12 years before the July 1 transition.

‘Convergence science’

Among the most famous examples of “convergence science” is the human genome sequencing project, a 10-year initiative that drew on the country’s top experts in mathematics, biology and chemistry.

Solomon said he hopes the College of Sciences at NCSU can create a similar environment, “where serendipity may occur,” Solomon said.

Phillip A. Sharp, a geneticist and molecular biologist who earned a Nobel Prize for co-discovering RNA splicing, praised the move by N.C. State.

Sharp, who works in the Koch Institute at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said he visited N.C. State last year and what he saw of its ongoing research was “really quite exciting.”

As co-author of a white paper report in 2011 titled “The Third Revolution: The Convergence of the Life Sciences, Physical Sciences and Engineering,” Sharp sees a strong need for mathematics and science to come together.

“The merging opens scientifically exciting frontiers as well as brings many benefits to society,” Sharp said.

Elder: 919-829-4528

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