Chancellor Vitter expands Flagship Constellation Initiative

Posted on Nov 7 2017 - 8:00am by Olivia Morgan

Faculty across the Oxford and Jackson campuses of the University of Mississippi are gearing up for next Friday’s official launch of the Flagship Constellations Initiative.

Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter first announced the plans for these constellations in his investiture speech in last November.

“We will establish joint degree programs across disciplines and campuses, engage in the strategic growth of our graduate programs and establish key partnerships revolving around innovation and entrepreneurship,” Vitter said in his address.

This spring, the university accepted 18 full proposals from more than 400 faculty members for potential areas of emphasis across campus, and a board of university leaders from both campuses reviewed and rearranged the proposals into four categories: community well-being, brain wellness, disaster resilience and big data.

“One thing we were conscious of when we chose these themes was that they are broad enough that they will still be relevant 10 years from now,” Josh Gladden, interim vice chancellor for research, said. “This isn’t a three-year project or a five-year project. It will be a decade or so.”

In planning, his office looked at other schools, like the University of Wisconsin and Auburn University, which have similar cross-disciplinary teams. He said the program will provide stronger applications for grants and private funding as well as facilitate conversations between different areas of study to come up with unique solutions to problems.

“For the student’s perspective, it’s going to provide new experimental learning opportunities,” Gladden said. “They will be starting their careers in this cross-disciplinary environment.”

“The whole idea behind the constellation is breaking down silos,” Dawn Wilkins, interim co-lead of the “Big Data” constellation, said. “We all tend to be in our own building. We do our research maybe with collaborators across the country or the world, but sometimes we don’t look across campus.”

One of the first things she plans to do in the constellation is to develop a governance structure for the group to define the connections and themes of the program. Plans for the “Big Data” constellation include forays into biomedical data analytics and journalism.

Her department is already working on a project in conjunction with Jeffery Jackson in the sociology department, who is digitizing research on slave records from Lafayette County to benefit people conducting ancestry research. 

Each of the four focus areas has two co-leads, one from the Oxford campus and another from the University of Mississippi Medical Center. Wilkins, who is chair of the computer and information science department, is heading this section of the initiative with Dr. Richard Summers of the UMMC.

Summers has been a part of the planning team for the constellation initiative for more than a year now. He said that the planning process has been unique, unlike a typical grant or other academic funding application.

He said the constellation initiative has improved communications and collaboration between the university’s Oxford campus and the medical center in Jackson.

“There is a lot of data around health care right now, and I think that the constellation allows us the opportunity to really bring in a lot of different perspectives on how we look at data,” Summers said. He said he hopes to utilize skill sets like math, economics and social sciences that aren’t in Jackson to look at the state’s health issues.

“When we think about tackling a problem as simple as low infant birth weight, there are social issues, economic issues. All of those things are possible factors that we can look at from a bigger perspective using both campuses,” Summers said.

Meagen Rosenthal, who is co-leading the community well-being constellation, is also working to tackle the problem of low infant birth weight. She said that more than 50 actively engaged representatives from nearly all departments on campus have expressed interest in working with the constellations.

“In my experience, the people of Mississippi are deeply interested in improving the well-being of our communities and, more importantly, are willing to think creatively and put in the hard work needed to see that creativity come to life,” she said.

Though her expertise lies in pharmacy administration, projects under her constellation will include telehealth technology, improving school children’s access to fresh and local produce and housing.

Plans are in the works for a launch of the constellations at the Gertrude C. Ford Center, which will include alumni, faculty, congressional staff and a new website.