Engineering to Participate in Faculty Cluster Hiring for Aging Mind and Brain Research

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Over the next two years, 14 new professors will join forces with existing faculty in an effort to establish the University of Iowa as a world leader in enhancing quality of life among aging populations. 

Two of the faculty members will be hired within the College of Engineering.

The new hires are part of the “cluster hire initiative,” a five-year plan to hire faculty in interdisciplinary groups to build on UI strengths and help the university achieve distinction in target areas.

Approaching the subject of aging from various fields, the faculty will examine ways to prevent or delay mental decline in older people, improve cognitive health and prolong the independence of elder adults.

It’s vital to investigate aging, UI officials say, because the Iowa Department on Aging projects that the number of Iowans 65 or older will rise from 450,000 in 2008 to more than 663,000 by 2030. Similar trends exist nationally and globally because now, more than ever, people are surviving long enough to reach old age.

“This is an exciting time to study the aging mind and brain,” said Matthew Rizzo, M.D., who serves in the Department of Neurology, the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, and the Public Policy Center, and who will serve as director for the aging cluster. “Neuroscientists, behavioral researchers, social scientists, legal experts and scholars in many other fields are making advances that help us understand how aging affects cognitive functioning, and how we can intervene to prevent problems. We can translate that knowledge into better quality of life for older people.”

Examples of areas in which the new faculty will contribute expertise include geriatric diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia; brain imaging; genetics and their contribution to impairments such as diminished vision and hearing; the many relevant applications of technology, such as mitigating age-related cognitive or physical deficits; best practices in long-term care; the psychology of aging; and public health issues that affect an aging workforce and general population, including ergonomics, health promotion, and injury prevention.

The hires are the result of a collaborative “Aging Mind and Brain” proposal, which emerged as the winner of an Office of the Provost-sponsored competition announced last spring. Besides the two faculty hirings in Engineering, the remaining 12 positions will include two each in the Colleges of Nursing and Public Health, and four each in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) and the Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine. Within each college, the Office of the Provost will fund half of the positions and the college will match that investment by supporting the remaining salary lines.

Several other UI colleges also expect to collaborate on the aging initiative. Geriatric dentistry experts in the College of Dentistry, College of Law faculty with expertise in elder law and policy, and College of Pharmacy faculty who study issues such as the long-term effects of pharmacotherapy will contribute to the effort. In addition to participating in the cluster hire, CLAS will hire faculty in mental health and aging, the medical anthropology of aging, health promotion with a focus on aging, and the physiology of aging.

The initiative builds on existing UI strengths in the area of aging research, education and outreach, including centers and institutes such as the Center on Aging, the Institute for Clinical and Translational Science, the National Health Law and Policy Resource Center, the Public Policy Center, the John A. Hartford Center of Geriatric Nursing Excellence and the Iowa Institute for Biomedical Imaging. Several UI colleges have active outreach programs on aging, with extensive networks around the state, and CLAS offers an aging studies certificate for undergraduate and graduate students.

Examples of aging-related successes include the UI-based Iowa Geriatric Education Center, which prepares students, faculty and practitioners across the state to work with older adults. The center has trained more than 11,000 people in the past three years and recently received a $2.1 million federal grant to continue its work. On the research front, UI neuroscientist Natalie Denburg found that measurable neuropsychological deficits in older adults seem to lead to poor decision-making and an increased vulnerability to fraud. Her work may lead to a way to identify people at risk of being deceived. And courses offered through the UI Aging Studies Program are helping more than 750 UI students understand and appreciate the later stages of life.

“This proposal represents exactly what we hoped to accomplish with the cluster hire initiative,” said Tom Rice, associate provost for faculty, who oversaw the proposal process. “It takes an area of strength and brings talented people from different academic worlds together in ways that will make us extraordinary.”

A steering committee consisting of Rizzo and at least six representative faculty members will work with departments and colleges to coordinate searches for scholars whose expertise will support departmental needs as well as the cluster.

The Office of the Provost kicked off the cluster hire program last year with a 10-faculty cluster in water sustainability (for more information, visit http://watersustainability.uiowa.edu/), and announced the second round of cluster hires, in the digital public humanities, in September. (See related news release at http://www.news-releases.uiowa.edu/2010/September/092110cluster_hires.html.)

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500

MEDIA CONTACTS: Tom Rice, Provost's Office, 319-335-3565, tom-rice@uiowa.edu; Nicole Riehl, University News Services, 319-384-0070, nicole-riehl@uiowa.edu; Writer: Kris Yows