Northwestern Summit Promotes Research Impact and Engagement

Inaugural Broader Impacts Forum offers strategic framework, networking to align scholarship with societal needs

By Matt GolosinskiFebruary 16, 2018

Creating knowledge that benefits society is integral to Northwestern’s research and teaching mission. A new Northwestern event advances that goal by building additional bridges between the University and the larger community.

Representatives from more than two dozen organizations joined Northwestern faculty and staff on February 5 for the inaugural Broader Impacts Forum, a daylong program on the Evanston campus that brought together educators, administrators, and researchers from across Northwestern and beyond to explore how research can exert a transformative social benefit in addition to the experiments themselves. Participants included the Museum of Science and Industry, Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago, Fermilab, Argonne National Laboratory, Chicago Public Schools, and Evanston/Skokie School District 65, as well as other cultural and educational institutions and faith-based and community organizations. The forum featured panel discussions, a networking lunch and reception, and a keynote address by Teresa Woodruff, obstetrics and gynecology, and dean of The Graduate School.

In his opening remarks, Northwestern Vice President for Research Jay Walsh noted that broader impacts come in many forms and span all academic disciplines. They can include opportunities to promote underrepresented research and nonobvious research collaborations, such as the boundary-spanning collaborations between The Block Museum and the McCormick School of Engineering that merge art and science while creating a forum for public engagement, too. He also highlighted Northwestern’s fee-for-service Core facilities, instrumentation and expertise vital for many kinds of scientific breakthroughs, and resources that the University makes available to researchers from other regional institutions.

Making such connections and finding ways to amplify the impact of research beyond the University is intrinsically beneficial, said Walsh. Increasingly, it is also imperative for those seeking grant money for their work.

“Certainly, as scientists our goal is to advance our own field,” Walsh said at the event, which was sponsored by the Office for Research, the Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching, the Office for Research Development, Science in Society, and the Office of Community Education Partnerships. “But funding agencies, including the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes for Health, and others, have made it clear that teaching, training, and learning to create impacts beyond our fields is also very important.”

Reducing Science Gaps and Sex Bias

The keynote speech by Woodruff — a pioneering scientist whose research created a new field,  oncofertility, and whose advocacy for sex-based inclusion in biomedical research has helped change federal policy in crucial ways to support women’s health — emphasized the need to effectively convey science to a “doubtful world.” Woodruff shared the challenges and successes of her own efforts to create a broader impact, including her role in helping effect a landmark 2016 change in federal research policy that required investigators to consider sex as a biological variable.

She explained how sex bias, often pervasive and unconscious, continues to adversely impact women’s professional opportunities in the sciences. That bias also can result in public health hazards, as happened with the sleep aid zolpidem (branded as Ambien): for years, women reported troubling side effects, including marked daytime drowsiness. The US Food and Drug Administration finally revised dosing standards for women in 2013, cutting by half the recommended amount for females as compared with males. It turned out that women metabolized the pharmaceutical much differently than men, something that might have been apparent had researchers accounted for sex-based differences in lab tests, rather than considering male animal subjects as the “default.”

“A gap in science knowledge impacts our health and decision making. This is one of the big topics of our time,” said Woodruff, adding that the risqué connotations of terms like “sex” and “sex ed” continue to hinder society’s ability to have deeper, more meaningful discussions about reproductive health and health more generally.

Woodruff told participants that future scientific breakthroughs would require research leaders with the ability to increase their influence and capacity to act. Advances also would demand an entrepreneurial spirit to bring about the next generation of “purpose-driven” innovation and discovery, as well as a new kind of learner adapted to a more fast-paced, interdisciplinary environment.

“It’s difficult to communicate that we are harming our own health by having this sex disparity,” she told attendees. “It’s hard to boil it down to one sentence to disseminate to the public efficiently and to generate political capital.” Yet one of Woodruff’s central claims was that advances in 21st-century medicine will require well-trained scientists and clinical investigators who study medicine in partnership with a well-informed public enthusiastic about science.

“My goal is to get every high school graduate to say ‘I like science. I like math,’” said Woodruff.

The Forum’s panel discussions addressed diversity and inclusion in research, including partnering with communities in equitable ways that respect the knowledge provided by those communities and that bring their members into more meaningful relationships with researchers and research outcomes. One example showcased the research collaboration between Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences faculty member Alejandro Carrión, Latina and Latino studies, and Margarita Vizcarra, academic adviser at Evanston Township High School (ETHS). The initiative, called Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR), “challenges the traditional notions of expertise, power, and privilege to create community-based research that regards communities as partners, not as resources to be mined,” said Carrión. Projects included student collaborations that examined cultural identity and critiqued aspects of the ETHS curriculum and experience through the lens of these students.  Other panels explored innovations in K-12 education and ways to better communicate research to students and to the public. McCormick School of Engineering faculty member Lincoln Lauhon, materials science, spoke about the NSF Research Experiences for Teachers (RET) program. He administers Northwestern’s RET activity through the University’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC). Another panelist, Lisa Backus, a teacher at Deerfield High School, discussed the impact and how she translated her research experience into her classroom. Karen Smilowitz, industrial engineering and management, and Paul Goren, superintendent of Evanston/Skokie School District 65, discussed their collaboration to improve transportation logistics.

Michael Kennedy, director of Science in Society, a Northwestern research center launched in 2009 and dedicated to science outreach and communication, emphasized the value of “building relationships and extending networks” among academic and other community institutions. He said higher education students are a “great untapped resource” for helping advance this goal, but that students need some support and guidance in doing so — something that Science in Society has sought to provide.

Denise Drane, director of research and evaluation at the Searle Center for Advanced Learning and Teaching, one of the event’s co-sponsors, outlined how the center advances broader impacts by enhancing learning and teaching at all levels of the University. She said that she and her colleagues help support faculty development; graduate student and postdoctoral scholar development; undergraduate academic support and enrichment; and assessment, evaluation, and education research. “Our learning innovations, including curriculum and course development, make an impact right here at the University,” she said, noting an NSF-funded inter-institutional collaboration with Karen Chou, civil and environmental engineering, in which an interactive, virtual steel sculpture was created.

Similarly, Nicole Moore, director of Research Development in the Office for Research, shared her team’s mission to help catalyze interdisciplinary discovery, including through the development of competitive research proposals and with seed funding, such as the Interdisciplinary 1-2-3 platform. “We help faculty construct and develop high-quality, complex proposals,” she said, noting that broader impacts are often a required component of large center proposals to federal agencies. “From conceiving of ideas to identifying funding opportunities to building research teams and finding the right partners, we are supporting faculty and their desire to pursue investigations that have a broader impact.”

Bennett Goldberg, Searle Center director, said that the Forum highlighted the “amazing work” of Northwestern faculty, staff, and students whose research has cultivated meaningful collaborations with community stakeholders. “The projects support greater access to and success in education for diverse populations, advancing heath access and care, and exploring new ways of collaborating,” he said. “I was struck, in particular, by the commitment to social justice and aligning with principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as action-oriented partnership in ways that are intentionally inclusive.”

Fruma Yehiely, associate vice president for research in the Office for Research and one of the Forum co-organizers, called the event a “beautiful collaboration among many offices at Northwestern, one whose goals include catalyzing the broader impacts of research to support our communities, educate and train our citizens, and enhance diverse perspectives in a range of careers.”

The Broader Impact Forum Organizing Committee included: Karen Cielo (chair), Denise Drane (co-chair), Susanna Calkins, Sharisse Grannan, Jennifer Howard, Michael Kennedy, Rabiah Mayas, Megan McConnell, Rebecca McNaughton, Nicole Moore, and Amy Pratt.