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Dean's Blog: Bright future for Mason Science research

Dean Fernando Miralles-Wilhelm

As George Mason University begins the celebration of a milestone anniversary this spring, one can’t help but look back at the significant research investments we’ve taken and milestones achieved to get us where we are. We begin to understand what this strong foundation of visionary science, supportive mentorship, and significant investment means for Mason researchers and our partners as our early career scientists continue to distinguish themselves in their respective fields.

This week, we celebrate the retirement of Mason biodefense research visionary, Charlie Bailey. Bailey led the construction of Mason’s Biomedical Research Laboratory facilities which came online in 2010 and are home to many of the college’s 15 research centers. The BRL and our scientists who work in it have established Mason’s biodefense and infectious disease research expertise.

Mason received the elite Carnegie Research 1 (R-1) university designation in 2016. As the youngest university on that list, it meant the world-class research, scholarship, and creative work conducted by our faculty and students is recognized by peers and stakeholders across the nation and around the world. An institutional commitment to research across disciplines propelled us to our status as a top research university and America’s fastest growing public university research portfolio.

On the biohealth front, our Center for Infectious Disease Research, Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine (CAPMM) and scientists on our Science and Technology campus focused on COVID detection, treatment, and vaccine development to lead the Mason nation’s successful pandemic journey.

Both our CAPMM and Center for Drug Development and Rare Diseases recently received $1.5M+ Department of Defense breakthrough grants to treat breast cancer. The important research our accomplished scientists perform to explore novel antimicrobial and anti-biofilm compounds and to better understand and treat ailments including HIV continues to gain attention and funding.

On the sustainability and computational data fronts, our college continues to grow its research impact and stature. We work with public and private partnerships to leverage our knowledge of climate and data science, incorporate future technologies to solve criminal cases, expand the understanding of space and quantum materials science, and address sustainability impact in crop development, water and species conservation, and our evolving and past civilizations and climate. All while building one of the nation’s most diverse STEM workforces of the future.

The National Science Foundation’s Early Career Development Program (CAREER) is its most prestigious award in support of early-career faculty. It’s given to faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and in education, and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. Over the past few years, there have been five Mason scientists to receive this award, Natalie Burls for her work in climate research with AOES, Patrick Vora and Nirmal Ghimere for their quantum materials science within our Physics and Astronomy discipline, and back to back grants for chemistry and biochemistry researchers Lee Solomon and Chao Luo.

And the research emphasis doesn’t just stop there. We cultivate scientific inquiry at all levels, faculty, postdocs, providing access and opportunity to our diverse science student community with our 38 graduate programs and a robust undergraduate research pipeline with Fulbright, Cosmos, and Goldwater scholars.

Before the COVID pandemic, Mason Science hired Andrea Cobb, former science laboratory program director of the nationally recognized Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology to lead our undergraduate research programs including the wildly popular and competitive Aspiring Scientists Summer Internship Program (ASSIP).

The nationally known ASSIP provides transformative research opportunities for high school and undergraduate students. Selected participants work one-on-one with faculty researchers at George Mason University and collaborating institutions using state-of-the-art technology across many disciplines. There is still time to get involved as either a mentor or participant as the ASSIP applications are due February 6, 2022.  

One central thread unites Mason’s mission from past, present, and into the future: our commitment to students. United in our mission of creating access to excellence, our faculty, staff, community partners, and alumni have propelled Mason to its current stature. Mason’s accelerated growth fueled the surrounding region and was a factor in making Northern Virginia one of the most desirable places to live, work, and start new enterprises.

Corporate partnerships and innovative PhD funding models are emerging offering opportunities to solve difficult scientific problems or expand into new technologies and scientific fields like quantum materials, computational data science for strategic decision making, antimicrobial and proteomic research, geoinformation systems, neuroscience, environmental science, chemistry and biochemistry and forensic sciences. The depth and breadth of Mason’s Science enterprise surprises many new to working with us.

Our research funding partners are too numerous to list them all yet I will highlight just a few recent collaborations with the public and private sector. Working with the Department of Justice and FARO Technologies, our Forensic Science Department has created the most comprehensive forensics research and training facility, the first one of its kind in the world. Our many unique partnerships with the Smithsonian help save species, establish science curriculum for the future and promote STEM education to underrepresented groups. We leverage our close proximity to Washington D.C. to cultivate ongoing federal science collaboration with NASA, NSF, NIH, EPA, DTRA, NOAA, and Departments of Energy, Defense, and Agriculture.

We are focused to take our visionary scientific discovery to the next level. It’s not just one or two centers who carry this load. Each of our Mason Science researchers and funding supporters does their part. As the COVID limitations begin to lift, I encourage our science community to keep writing and processing proposals. Let’s build on our COVID 'victory' momentum and the strong scientific foundation we have built to focus on our mission of a healthy planet, healthy economy, healthy society, and healthy people.