April 4, 2011

New institute to tackle ‘grand challenges’

A new Johns Hopkins institute, opening today, will bring together the university’s experts in engineering, medicine, public health, the social and physical sciences, education and other fields to solve tough national-scale problems that require a multidisciplinary approach. Some of the institute’s initial targets may include patient safety enhancement, development of individualized learning plans for K-12 students and improvement of disaster-preparedness plans.

The organization, called the Johns Hopkins Systems Institute, will operate as a “virtual” center with a small administrative staff but a large list of affiliated researchers from the university’s academic divisions in Baltimore and its Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md. Institute members will seek funding from government agencies and corporations to solve challenging problems with diverse teams of university experts. In addition to traditional lab scientists and engineers, most of these projects will require help from Johns Hopkins experts in medicine, nursing, political science, economics, business and education.

Although other universities have set up systems engineering programs, the new Johns Hopkins institute will operate with an even broader scope. “The Systems Institute is intended to tackle problems that must be solved beyond the traditional boundaries of engineering and technology,” said Mo Dehghani, an APL department head who is the institute’s founding director. “The institute will ultimately try to address grand, national-scale, multidisciplinary challenges in areas such as health care delivery, infrastructure, education, energy strategies and other broad-based challenges. The complex problems in these areas don’t lend themselves to simple solutions that rely only on engineering and technology,” he said. “The solutions will have to integrate other factors, such as socioeconomic, education and cultural issues, to be viable on the large scale. ”

In launching this institute, Dehghani added, “we are perhaps in a better position than many other institutions because we have many of the right ingredients already here within our Johns Hopkins system.”

The institute will be based administratively in the Whiting School of Engineering, which is providing startup funds. A temporary institute office has opened in the San Martin Center at Homewood, and its permanent home will be in the campus’s new Malone Hall. Construction of the four-story building will begin next year.

Nick Jones, the Benjamin T. Rome Dean of the Whiting School, views the new institute as an important addition to the university. “Our engineering faculty and their professional colleagues at APL have a history of solving complex, large-scale problems that are of critical importance to society,” he said. “Given the breadth of their expertise and their eagerness to collaborate with other disciplines, the Systems Institute will provide them with the structure and support they need to properly articulate problems and define objectives, and then focus their expertise in order to have the biggest impact.”

Ralph Semmel, director of APL, also expressed support for the new institute. “By combining the depth and breadth of expertise across Johns Hopkins divisions with the university’s commitment to address national challenges, we have a winning combination for solving the toughest problems,” he said.

Dehghani, director of the institute, will be based mainly at APL, where he also will continue to oversee the lab’s Technical Services Department. At the Homewood campus, Tak Igusa, a civil engineering professor, will serve as associate director for research and education.

Igusa said he has already talked to about 40 Johns Hopkins faculty members on the Homewood and East Baltimore campuses who are interested in participating in institute projects. During the planning phase of the institute, he added, he has been significantly involved in several cross-disciplinary project proposals, including:

• A statewide effort to use medical informatics to improve critical care, led by hospital patient safety expert Peter Pronovost of the School of Medicine.

• A study of disaster resilience for rural communities, with a focus on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, led by Judith Mitrani-Reiser of the Whiting School, Jonathan Links of the Bloomberg School of Public Health and Joshua Epstein of the School of Medicine.

• A systems-oriented study of obesity in children, led by Youfa Wang and Thomas Glass of the Bloomberg School.

These and other institute projects must obtain funding from outside the university. Igusa pointed out that APL scientists have a strong record of securing financing for mission-oriented Department of Defense and national security contracts for development of complex systems, while Johns Hopkins faculty members are skilled at obtaining grants from government agencies for advancing fundamental knowledge. “We want to combine the best of both cultures,” he said.

The institute will also include an educational component. As its projects get under way, faculty members will likely find work that can be assigned to graduate students. Eventually, master’s and doctoral degree programs will be developed to complement the Whiting School’s already established and well-regarded part-time master’s program in systems engineering offered through Engineering for Professionals.

Igusa cautioned that unlike some other academic centers, the Systems Institute will not be focused simply on generating basic research results that can be reported in scholarly journals. “Our primary goal is to be more outcome-oriented,” he said. “If our projects are successful, the scholarly journal articles will follow soon afterward.”

To learn more about the Johns Hopkins Systems Institute, go to eng.jhu.edu/wse/systems-institute.