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The Catalyst for Collaborative Solutions

March 1, 2018

Since I started in my role as Dean of Stanford Engineering almost one year ago, I have been continually amazed by the breadth and scope of the research projects and initiatives in which our faculty are engaged. It has also been incredibly exciting to help support the development of the Catalyst for Collaborative Solutions. As you may remember, the Catalyst emerged from the SoE-Future planning process, and was envisioned as a new way to foster truly meaningful interdisciplinary research collaborations that tackle some of the world’s most complex challenges.

Last fall, after a competitive process, we awarded substantial funding to three interdisciplinary teams of scholars from across the university working on projects related to medical diagnostics, sustainable oceans, and mental health. We are now in year two of this initiative, and I am thrilled to say that we have received 33 proposals, representing over 100 faculty total, with participation from each of our seven schools. The Catalyst review panel and outside experts will now have the interesting and fun challenge of reading through these proposals and selecting a set of finalists, who will present their research project ideas at a May symposium.

It will certainly be exciting to see who receives funding this year. However, as Catalyst Director Mark Horowitz often says, the value of this program is not primarily in the awarding of grants, but in fostering new connections among faculty with shared interests. And by that measure, the initiative has proved to be a great success! The Catalyst has sponsored a number of workshops and events during which researchers have had the opportunity to meet one another and learn how their disciplines and approaches to research intersect with and complement one another. Survey and anecdotal data tell us that these initiatives are working. Respondents to surveys say they would enthusiastically recommend that their colleagues participate in these events. Several faculty said the workshops helped them move their research into new and unexpected directions. One particularly positive sign: Several research groups that were not funded by the Catalyst last year are still moving ahead with their ideas and seeking out alternative sources of funding.

I am thankful to John Dabiri for driving the Catalyst’s success in its first year. As its first director, he worked tirelessly to bring the initiative from a conceptual stage to a vibrant organization before stepping down late last year to focus on his own research. As the new director, Mark has built on these successes. He recognizes that universities subtly incentivize faculty to stay in their lanes, exploring important problems but from their own discipline, department, and area of expertise. So he has focused on providing incentives for faculty to come together from throughout the university and giving them the tools they need to be successful, both in defining the challenges they want to pursue and in understanding how to build genuinely productive interdisciplinary collaborations.

As I move forward in my second year as Dean, I’m thrilled by the Catalyst’s success. I look forward to updating you on its progress, and on the many extraordinary research initiatives at Stanford Engineering.

Jennifer Widom

Frederick Emmons Terman Dean, Stanford School of Engineering 
Fletcher Jones Professor in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering