The University of South Carolina announced earlier this year that it will invest $10 million in five new research institutes over the next four years to address large-scale state issues, such as cardiovascular health, rural education and water quality.
Each institute will receive $500,000 per year over the four years from USC's Research Institutes Funding Program.
USC Institute for Extreme Semiconductor Chips
Electrical engineering professor Asif Khan will serve as the director of the Institute for Extreme Semiconductor Chips. Khan is collaborating with the Arnold School of Public Health and the Darla Moore School of Business to work on the development of homegrown computer chips.
Other professors involved in the project include fellow College of Engineering and Computing professors Grigory Simin and MVS Chandrashekhar, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry professor Thomas Vogt, Arnold School of Public Health professor Bridget Armstrong and Darla Moore School of Business professor Dirk Brown.
The institute will focus on semiconductors that are
used to make computer chips for electric vehicles, aircraft and advanced healthcare technology.
“The semiconductors that we are going to do research on in this institute will be able to operate at extremely high temperatures,” Khan said. “They are very good for applications that demand extreme temperatures, that demand extreme power in electronics.”
Khan said the development of homegrown computer chips became a priority in national security circles when supply chains were disturbed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The institute has begun working with military technology companies such as Northrop Grumman and Raytheon, according to Khan, to use the institute as a research center for national security tools while trying to forge partnerships with other universities to fund a federal microchip research project.
“Imagine if today, all the computers stopped functioning for the U.S. Imagine how big a national security risk that could be,” Khan said. “We cannot be depending upon the supply of the chips from foreign countries.”
USC Institute for Clean Water
The Institute for Clean Water and Healthy Ecosystems, now led by biology professor Tammi Richardson, has four main focus areas with eight professors engaged in the work.
Groups for the institute will analyze water contaminants on microscopic algae and small animals, develop new technology and use drones to monitor water quality and track social media activity where people discuss their water quality, said Richardson.
“One of the things that a lot of South Carolinians have in common is that they really appreciate clean drinking water and clean water to fish and to boat and to swim,” Richardson said.
Richardson said that geography professor Michael Hodgson is spearheading the project to identify the sources of particular water contaminants.
Part of that effort is the Aspire program, which Richardson said uses a drone to collect water samples. She said the drone was made possible by research grant money and allows the team to capture and collect samples quickly.
"There's a lot of work that we're interested in doing with respect to putting sensors on these drones, and honestly developing any other technology that we can use to make water sampling easier for either state governments or citizen scientists," Richardson said.
Richardson said that the institute works with the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control to analyze those water samples to detect possible pollutants and learn more about unknown contaminants.
The social media aspect is overseen by Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management professor Lori Pennington-Gray, according to Richardson. Pennington-Gray uses the Social Media Insights Lab in the College of Information and Communications to survey and observe what people are saying about water quality online.
USC Institute for Rural Education and Development
Matthew Irvin, director of the Institute for Rural Education and Development, said he is collaborating with the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Medicine-Columbia to find better ways to teach math, science and engineering to students in rural areas across South Carolina.
Irvin said a strong approach to teaching STEM concepts in rural areas begins with integrating physical activity with coding through robotics in an early motor development program.
"This is very innovative in our work that there's going to be a synergistic effect when you provide these physical activity lessons," Irvin said. "Then it gets further demonstrated in robotics coding lessons, and they had these integrated lessons that put those two together."
The institute is working alongside the South Carolina Organization of Rural Schools, a group that advocates for rural communities and ensures they have opportunities for higher-quality education, to identify schools looking for help and better understand their backgrounds Irvin said.
Irvin said some of the institute's work stems from Project AWAKE, or the Advancement of Workforce and Knowledge Economy, which will continue with funding from the National Science Foundation and expand to provide virtual reality career exploration for rural students.
He also said that they are providing teachers, school counselors and career development facilitators with up to two years of training and coaching on how to provide more authentic lessons in STEM fields.
“It’s a great opportunity for the university to serve the state and serve a portion of our state that probably, historically the university hasn’t served as much,” Irvin said.
USC Institute for Infectious Disease Translational Research
Melissa Nolan, director for the Institute for Infectious Disease Translational Research, said her work is collaborating with Prisma Health, the College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Medicine-Columbia, the College of Engineering and Computing and select state agencies to study emerging insect-born and genetically-inherited diseases.
Nolan and her research team are studying Chagas disease, which she said is a parasitic infection that is most commonly acquired during childhood.
“If we can identify people early before they develop advanced heart failure, then they can have efficacious treatment,” Nolan said. “But if we wait until they come into the clinic with signs of heart failure, that damage has been done.”
Nolan said during the research team's work in El Salvador, they recently discovered a secondary vector for Chagas that is infecting children despite the World Health Organization eradicating the primary vector for the disease.
Nolan said that her research team also did a study on the Hispanic immigrant population within South Carolina and found that they were being infected with Chagas disease as well.
“We were excited to be able to show our local Prisma Health physicians that this is something they should be looking for,” Nolan said. “We’ve done a lot of action around getting that covered by insurance. So now these indigent populations can get screened and treated for free.”
Nolan said that people of lower socioeconomic status may be at higher risk of mosquito-borne and tick-borne diseases since they may not have the proper prevention resources and that women of color and people of lower socioeconomic status are at higher risk of transferring these diseases to their children since with less access to screenings.
The end goal, according to Nolan, is to find more funding to both both serves students and the community.
“The long term goal is to create the sustainable institute that's well funded, that provides opportunities for students to get involved in research,” Nolan said. “But then really kind of just increases the capacity of health care innovations.”
USC Institute for Cardiovascular Disease Research
The Institute for Cardiovascular Disease Research, under the direction of biomedical engineering professor Clinton Webb, is working across the College of Engineering and Computing to study the link between chronic stress and physical ailments.
Webb said the institute is working on preclinical testing to see how the impact of stress on blood pressure, for example, affects major organs such as the brain, heart and kidneys.
Cardiovascular difficulties occur more severely in certain demographics than others, which may be linked with stressors, according to Webb. He said Black Americans experience chronic stress differently from white Americans and that people in the military experience a lot of unpredictable stress and can leave with mild hypertension or worse.
”There’s no doubt that the state of South Carolina is a stressed population,” Webb said. “There’s a lot of people here who live with chronic stress, and we need to understand it.”
Hand-held technology has also become a source of stress, Webb said, since people wake up and turn on their phones first thing in the morning and spend all day focusing on them.
Webb said that it will take a lot of programs within USC and in collaboration with other universities to accomplish the team's full research goals on cardiovascular disease, but the institute will start on them when it begins operation in the next eighteen months to two years.
Khan said the Institute for Extreme Semiconductors is expected to complete operation within the four-year period.
Editor's note: This article was updated to include the correct timeline for completion of the Institute for Cardiovascular Disease Research and Institute for Extreme Semiconductors.