Collaborative, multidisciplinary research helps Purdue solve vital issues
All land-grant universities share a founding commitment to provide educational opportunity and to serve their communities. Purdue University distinguishes itself from its land-grant peers through its intense focus on the collaborative, multidisciplinary research that is increasingly important to solving society’s most pressing issues.
So says Karen Plaut, Purdue’s Glenn W. Sample Dean of the College of Agriculture. Plaut worked or studied at three different land-grant institutions prior to joining the Purdue faculty in 2010, and that experience informs her perspective on how these collaborations make Purdue unique.
As an example, she cites the burgeoning digital forestry initiative that brings together stakeholders from across the university, including the College of Agriculture, the College of Engineering and Purdue Polytechnic Institute.
“This is a thing that Purdue does really, really well. We work together to make an impact,” Plaut says. “In this case, it’s in terms of how do we preserve our forests, how can we monitor or measure our forests, and how can we have an impact around the globe? Our ability to collaborate across disciplines is one of the things that is different about Purdue. Many partners will tell you that about us.”
When harnessed to work toward Indiana’s well-being, Purdue’s collaborative capabilities have proven to be a powerful development tool.
Martin C. Jischke firmly pushed Purdue toward a multidisciplinary orientation while serving as university president from 2000-07. Because of Purdue’s reputation as a committed stakeholder, Indiana legislators responded positively to Jischke’s efforts to fundraise and expand Purdue’s reach.
“Over the 150 years that we’ve been in existence, we’ve developed a reputation for being practical people, problem solvers, involved in the life of the state,” Jischke says. “We also are seen as straight shooters. People can trust us. So we’re seen as a good partner. And when we talk about trying to take these basic ideas that define our mission and apply them to today’s needs, we often meet a pretty receptive audience.”
We’re seen as a good partner. And when we talk about trying to take these basic ideas that define our mission and apply them to today’s needs, we often meet a pretty receptive audience.Martin Jischke
Former Purdue president
Encouraging interdisciplinary research
Under Jischke, a desire for more interdisciplinary collaboration led to the creation of Discovery Park – a 40-acre research park on the southwest edge of Purdue’s campus whose residents and corporate and university partners have been responsible for billions of dollars in research investment and economic impact since Jischke announced the initiative in 2001.
Through Discovery Park, Purdue addressed a range of global concerns – including nanotechnology, biosciences, health care, global sustainability, advanced computational science, global security and entrepreneurship – and also benefited Indiana’s manufacturing industry.
“There was a need to begin to strategically think about creating new areas of economic activity that Hoosiers could work in and earn attractive salaries,” Jischke says. “One way of doing that is through innovation with technology.
“Concerning this broader strategic question of how Indiana will deal with the evolving economic environment that we face now and will face in the future, I thought there was a terrific opportunity for Purdue to help the state of Indiana understand this change and use its educational, its research, its extension capacities to help the state deal with it. And I must say I was pleasantly amazed at how receptive the people of Indiana were to that message.”
Purdue biomedical engineering’s evolution from graduate program to full-fledged Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering under George Wodicka is another success story from that era.
Because of Purdue’s unique strengths in science and engineering and the state of Indiana’s presence in the medical and manufacturing fields, Purdue’s leaders saw an opportunity to carve out a niche within a growing discipline. As Wodicka assembled plans to construct a building to house the new, multidisciplinary school and its rapidly expanding roster of students and faculty, he had the foresight to choose a location in Discovery Park.
“It has set us up with a rich set of connections and partners on this growing side of campus that has increasingly become more translational, more entrepreneurial, more connected with companies – all of the things that we in biomedical engineering have both prided ourselves on, as well as valued, since our inception,” says Wodicka, the Vincent P. Reilly Professor of Biomedical Engineering, who led the program for 23 years. “But now it’s happening at a much bigger scale, and we are reaping the reward.
“There are so many systems in place to assist our faculty in starting companies, or to connect to company partners that we’ve never worked with before, or to entice companies in the life sciences to come to West Lafayette and put their stake in the ground here. These are things that you couldn’t do alone as an academic unit, but as a university you can do it if you have something like Discovery Park.”
Environment attracts corporate partners
In 2018, Purdue announced plans to expand the Discovery Park ecosystem with Discovery Park District, a mixed-use, 460-acre development that establishes new university-private-public partnerships and attracts jobs and high-tech manufacturing facilities. (The entire ecosystem now goes by the name Discovery Park District at Purdue.) Companies like Rolls-Royce, Saab and Bayer have already established a footprint within the development, aiming to capitalize upon its location on the edge of Purdue’s campus.
“If you look at all the leading and emerging tech hubs around the globe, proximity to major research and educational institutions is a common denominator,” says Ting Gootee (MA American studies ’03), president and CEO of TechPoint, a nonprofit that works to grow Indiana’s tech industry. “Without Purdue and related access to technology innovation, talent and even that targeted capital, the growth of our state’s tech ecosystem would face major barriers.”
The engineering and advanced manufacturing brainpower within the state, specifically at Purdue, has driven optimism that Indiana can become a hard-tech hub of important technological and economic activity. And once again, Purdue is leading the way on this vital initiative.
In response to an emerging national security concern, Purdue introduced the nation’s first comprehensive semiconductor degree program, with plans to train a new generation of workers to create these vital microelectronic components at a time when U.S. production has fallen dangerously behind that of its global competition.
As Gootee’s observation indicates, Purdue’s innovative semiconductor plans have proven attractive to corporate partners aiming to foster mutually beneficial relationships. In July, SkyWater Technology announced it will build a $1.8 billion semiconductor facility in Discovery Park District at Purdue. The SkyWater facility and new chip-design partnership with MediaTek Inc. will provide research opportunities to faculty and career pathways to students working toward semiconductor degrees, while also providing these companies with easy access to in-demand talent.
When U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo visited Purdue in September 2022, they toured the university’s microelectronics facilities and were “blown away” by what they saw.
“This is what America needs,” Raimondo said of Purdue’s chip-fabrication plans. “Public sector working with the private sector, working with universities, tapping into the next generation of talent, solving problems in an interdisciplinary way. Amazing.”
Blinken said he was in “violent agreement” with his cabinet colleague’s praise, adding that “if you need a jolt of optimism, it’s right here. Optimism about the country, optimism about the future – it’s all right here. This is, I think, the most exciting human fab that I’ve ever seen. And building the next generation of leaders in technology – it’s incredibly powerful.”
Tackling society’s toughest challenges
Of course, these are only the most recent examples of Purdue’s long-held commitment to problem-solving. This philosophy is what produced landmark Boilermaker breakthroughs in disciplines like aeronautics, agriculture, drug discovery and engineering, and what initiated many other defining moments where Purdue provided innovative opportunities to learn.
The problem-solving mentality also inspired Boilermakers in times of war, providing vital technical instruction for pilots, soldiers and related personnel. During World War II alone, Purdue trained thousands of men and women in programs like the Curtiss-Wright Cadettes, the V-12 Navy College Training Program, the Army Specialized Training Program and the Naval Training School for Electricians’ Mates.
Faculty and staff also contributed to the war effort, including scientists from the chemistry and physics departments who contributed to the Manhattan Project and conducted semiconductor research to improve radar capabilities.
National security ranks among Purdue’s most important strategic initiatives even today, with work in cybersecurity, microelectronics, hypersonic and space vehicles, and energetic materials bringing Purdue researchers together with government and industry partners to resolve the nation’s technological concerns.
And this is just a small sampling of the many ways that Purdue has functioned as a force for good in service of its land-grant mission. In truth, the university’s founding charge is in some way linked to every research project, every educator and every building on campus.
“What are we doing with the land-grant mission? Everything,” says Purdue historian and author John Norberg. “Every place you turn on this campus, it’s the land-grant mission.”
What are we doing with the land-grant mission? Everything. Every place you turn on this campus, it’s the land-grant mission.John Norberg Purdue historian and author