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Building momentum for ORAU’s research culture: The Research and University Partnerships Office looks to the future

A new fiscal year and an executive’s retirement served as the catalyst for some big changes in the ORAU University Partnerships and Research Offices in 2020.

First, the offices were combined into a single entity, now known as the Research and University Partnerships Office, and input from stakeholders from across the organization resulted in revisions in ORAU’s research focus areas that make them more aligned with our business development activities in the hopes of positioning ORAU for new business for many years to come.

Ken Tobin, Ph.D., ORAU vice president of university partnerships and senior research officer, said combining the two offices made sense from a practical perspective.

“The University Partnerships Office was already supporting a number of activities around the Research Office, like the ORAU-Directed Research and Development (ODRD) program, so it was really a natural fit to bring the two entities together,” he said.

We will strengthen and build momentum for ORAU’s research culture, Tobin said. Also, we will seek to add value for each of the 127 members of the ORAU University Consortium by leveraging their expertise and capabilities to develop new capabilities and solutions for our government agency and private sector customers.

Cathy Fore, senior director of university partnerships, calls the consortium ORAU’s secret sauce. Because of the tight-knit relationships the team has with consortium members, from presidents on down, she said ORAU can bring knowledge of their capabilities, expertise and facilities to the forefront.

In a sense, Fore plays matchmaker with universities and federal agencies or industry.

“Understanding what the needs are from industry and government and other parties, and matching that with the capabilities of our member universities is, quite frankly, a lot of fun,” she said. “I’ve been doing it for quite some time and enjoy it. It’s really nice to bring the right parties together in a very interdisciplinary environment and just watch the magic happen.”

One of the best examples of this magic is research ORAU has done with Penn State University around the issue of fake news and misinformation. Researchers worked to develop and validate a survey that can identify an individual’s susceptibility to fake news, and also refine a machine-learning tool designed to identify fake news. These same researchers are now developing a misinformation curriculum that will be piloted at select universities.

“Data analytics is a key part of this work, but it’s good to see a cybersecurity expert and a social scientist working together to address a problem,” Fore said. 

ORAU Annual Meeting of the Council of Sponsoring Institutions adds value

If Fore is the matchmaker bringing university consortium members and federal agencies together, the ORAU Annual Meeting of the Council of Sponsoring Institutions could be considered speed dating.

The meeting, held in March, focuses on an area of inquiry drawn from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy agenda for federal agencies. The 2020 meeting theme was smart cities and communities; the 2021 meeting will focus on artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Fore said the 2021 meeting includes a panel discussion on advanced technologies around AI and machine learning. Other panels and presentations will focus on needed skills for the workforce, and the social and ethical aspects of AI and machine learning.

“These are the high priorities for investment that the agencies are making,” Fore said. “What we’re able to do with the annual meeting is look at various perspectives of the topic, bring experts into the room who understand those perspectives, and drive an agenda for future partnerships.”

Fore said it's exciting to watch university consortium members meet with other members and federal agency officials to begin conversations around developing a research agenda to tackle education and research challenges related to the meeting theme. 

ORAU research areas in focus

The ODRD program provides a corporate investment of seed money for research projects proposed by ORAU subject matter experts working alongside researchers from our university consortium. While ODRD projects and the work that has resulted from them has always been important, Tobin believes the corporate investment should be more focused on ORAU’s business strategies.

“We decided to identify just a few cross-cutting strategic investment areas that we could ask our researchers to put their time and energy into. Once we get those projects going and partnerships with our universities established, we can really be laying the groundwork for preliminary studies and publications that we can leverage into new proposals and new business opportunities,” Tobin said.

ODRD funds will be invested in three primary topic areas in fiscal year 2021, he added. Those areas are public health; data science and analytics; and diversity, equality and inclusion studies.

While not particularly specific, Tobin believes the topic areas are wide enough to cross-cut ORAU’s program areas. They were derived from internal meetings with stakeholders across the organization, including business development staff, program staff and our researchers. Virtual brainstorming sessions were held to narrow up to 30 potentially valuable topics to the three that were ultimately settled upon.

Working to solve the COVID-19 problem

Not surprisingly, COVID-19 was THE problem to address in 2020, and ORAU was in the midst of the storm, so to speak.

When ORAU and the MITRE Corporation signed a memorandum of understanding to work together in 2019, no one could have predicted that the coronavirus pandemic would be the first problem the organizations would work on together.

ORAU and MITRE are active members of the COVID-19 Healthcare Coalition, a private-sector organization comprised of healthcare organizations, technology firms, academia, non-profit groups and startups intent on preserving the nation’s healthcare delivery system and protecting populations from the coronavirus.

ORAU and MITRE worked together to present a webinar on the topic of wastewater surveillance as a leading-edge indicator of viral spread on university campuses. The July 2020 webinar was presented to University Consortium members, and featured presenters from MITRE, Yale University, Rice University and Arizona State University.

The webinar was one of six webinars offered to and featuring experts from consortium members. Other topics included traumatic brain injury research, trust in peer review, and building a research agenda. The first in a series of five webinars on data science issues was presented in December and will continue through August 2021.

In summer 2020, ORAU and MITRE collaborated on the development of Sara Alert™ Academic, a data management platform designed to rapidly identify and monitor individuals exposed to COVID-19. The data collected through Sara Alert™ Academic can help campus leaders stay updated on the numbers of students, faculty, and support staff who have been tested, those who are quarantined, and whether they are symptomatic. It can also ensure referral to care if needed. 

Sara Alert™ Academic is based on MITRE’s existing Sara Alert™ system, an open-source publicly available platform for public health organizations to monitor and track COVID-19 exposures.

“What we’ve done is tailor the existing program for the academic environment,” Tobin said. “We have updated the data input screens to include student and faculty IDs, and universities can break down their campuses to specific jurisdictions, enabling them to track where they are seeing issues in their populations. Plus we have taken on the more difficult task of hosting the software in a data secure environment while providing training support and help services to our users.

Tobin hopes universities will see the value in Sara Alert™ Academic’s workflow automation for university health staff, which reduces the burden on people who are likely already overburdened because of the pandemic.

He adds that Sara Alert Academic will prove useful beyond the current pandemic. “Any sort of disease state we may find ourselves in now and in the future can be helped by the monitoring and tracking capabilities of this system.”

Looking ahead 

The ORAU/MITRE relationship is an important partnership, and proves that strategic partnerships are what our office is all about, Fore said. 

“In the challenging times we’re in, we’ve got to partner to be successful. The more you can partner, the more innovation you can bring to the table to address a need,” she said. “We’re creating smart and sustainable partnerships that benefit everyone. It’s definitely a contact sport.”

Tobin adds that combining two offices under one banner and putting a stronger business development emphasis on research support and ODRD projects really positions ORAU for a bright future.

“I think our opportunity to leverage our university research capabilities and collaborations, and our federal and industry relationships, will continue to provide us with enduring opportunities to learn and improve how we do things,” Tobin said. “We’ve got a lot of exciting things coming down the pike, and I’m looking forward to being a part of it for years to come.”

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About ORAU

ORAU, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation, provides science, health, and workforce solutions that address national priorities and serve the public interest. Through our specialized teams of experts and access to a consortium of more than 150 major Ph.D.-granting institutions, ORAU works with federal, state, local, and commercial customers to provide innovative scientific and technical solutions and help advance their missions. ORAU manages the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

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