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USM Lands $4 Million Grant to Establish Regional Research Hub

Mon, 08/07/2023 - 11:15am | By: Van Arnold

ASPIRELabeled “ASPIRE,” a new project spearheaded by University of Southern Mississippi (USM) polymer Professor Dr. Zhe Qiang represents the ideal title for a team of scientists dedicated to changing the world.

Qiang and his team secured a $4 million grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) as part of the foundation’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) program. On Monday, August 7, NSF announced an investment of $56 million in 11 projects initiated by universities across the United States.

USM’s project is officially titled, “Advancing Social and Environmental Equity through Plastics Research: Education, Innovation, and Inclusion (ASPIRE).” The team will study the impact of microplastics on marine and community health, informing their exposure pathways and potential links to diseases, as well as design new materials for addressing plastic waste recycling challenges, which has been historically difficult.

The aim is to develop a regional hub of plastic-climate-health research with particular focuses on promoting environmental and social equity and workforce diversity. The grant period is for four years.

“USM is uniquely suited to perform this project due to its strength in polymer and ocean research, as well as its proximity to the coastal community,” said Qiang. “Moreover, both the states of Mississippi and Alabama have a high population of underrepresented minority groups, and the outcomes of this project will directly improve their health condition, business opportunities, along with waste recycling infrastructures.”

Qiang served as the principal investigator on the grant proposal. Other team members include Drs. Derek Patton, Yoan Simon, and Sarah Morgan from the USM School of Polymer Science and Engineering; Dr. Kristina Mojica from the USM School of Ocean Science and Engineering; Dr. Jennifer Lemacks from the USM College of Nursing and Health Professions, and Drs. Symone Alexander and Selen Cremaschi from the Chemical Engineering Department at Auburn University.

This EPSCoR investment is a component of NSF's ongoing effort to build research and development capacity and education in states that demonstrate a commitment to research but have not received the levels of investment seen in other parts of the country.

“As evident from EPSCoR’s impact, investing in research infrastructure is a powerful catalyst for strengthening our nation's security, competitiveness, and fostering groundbreaking scientific advancements," said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. “I am thrilled to announce this year's EPSCoR Track-2 awards, which will strengthen community and regional efforts to understand the impacts of a changing climate and enhance the resilience of disproportionately affected communities. By addressing these critical challenges, and engaging with communities impacted by climate change, we have the potential to advance innovation and promote economic stability and recovery in EPSCoR jurisdictions and beyond."

This year's projects focus on building collaborative teams of investigators in scientific focus areas consistent with NSF and national priorities. The four-year Research Infrastructure Improvement Track-2 awardees will undertake ambitious interdisciplinary research with a primary focus on enhancing climate change research and resilience capacity to create more opportunities for communities facing disproportionate impacts.

“The ASPIRE project exemplifies the convergence of interdisciplinary research and societal impact that we a striving for at The University of Southern Mississippi,” said Dr. Derek Patton, Director of the School of Polymer Science and Engineering. “This initiative not only addresses the significant and growing environmental challenge of microplastics and plastic waste, but it also emphasized inclusivity, directly benefiting coastal and underserved communities that may see disproportionate economic, societal, and health impacts from microplastic accumulation in coastal waters.”

Qiang notes that the award illustrates how USM can tackle important climate challenges and benefit society at large through establishing cohesive collaborations among different schools, leveraging respective strengths and resources.

“USM Polymer Science and Engineering is a world-leading research and education program, with sustainability as one of the key focus areas,” said Qiang. “Now, through this NSF grant, the development of our research capacity and infrastructure will be further catalyzed and enhanced.”

Added Patton: “As a collaborator, I am inspired by our team’s collective commitment to drive scientific innovation while promoting environmental and social equity. This grant is a testament to USM’s dedication to fostering impactful research that goes beyond the boundaries of traditional disciplines and benefits communities at large.”

Learn more about the USM’s School of Polymer Science and Engineering or call 601.266.4868.