Section: Archived News Stories

The Atkinson Center solutions factory: Up and running

December 20th, 2011 ›


In 2008, 15 professors from five Cornell departments spanning several colleges gathered over sandwiches and potato chips to brainstorm research approaches to the problem of mycotoxin-infected corn. Four years later, thanks in part to that lunch and an initial seed grant, one Cornell doctoral student gathered a mountain of data in Kenya, two Cornell professors are major players in a multinational study funded by the Australian government, and tens of thousands of Africans will be better protected from a toxin that stunts children's growth and can even be fatally poisonous.

The David R. Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future has sponsored 60 such topical lunches, funded 50 research projects, and launched "mini fellowship" programs in agrarian transformation and sustainable biodiversity. Most impressive, perhaps, are the many interdepartmental working relationships the center has fostered and the research advances those teams have achieved in the center's four years.

"We're matchmaking all the time. We're yentas," explains Professor Frank DiSalvo, the center's director. Two hundred seventy members of the Cornell faculty (representing 65 departments) are Atkinson Center fellows.

In 2007, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences advisory council co-chaired by David Atkinson '60 recommended that Cornell create a sustainability center. Atkinson and his wife, Patricia, provided initial seed funding. Three years later, in 2010, an external panel reviewed the center's progress, concluding that it was "nothing short of remarkable."

Based partly on that glowing report and partly because Cornell is the highest ranking American university with an agriculture college and also excels in the very fields key to sustainability research, the Atkinsons committed $80 million to provide ongoing funding for the center. It was the largest single gift ever to Cornell's Ithaca campus from individuals.

"It's a hugely important gift, a transformative gift," says DiSalvo. "It makes us permanent. Nobody wants to partner with an organization that might not be around next year."

There has been no shortage of partners. In four years, the return on investment is 10 to 1: $9 million spent and $90 million won in external funding for faculty projects that resulted in new inventions, the novel application of math and engineering to conservation, and new understanding about poverty and its causes, to name but a fraction of the advances made by Atkinson Center-supported research.

Frank DiSalvo, the John A. Newman Professor of Physical Science and director of the Atkinson Center, in his lab with Chinmayee Subban, a graduate student in chemistry and chemical biology. This fall, the center launched the Impact through Innovation Fund (IIF), which will award grants, beginning in 2012, to faculty research groups that have already secured external partnerships to conduct mutually beneficial work that applies or informs Cornell research.

IIF grants will not fund projects that are already ongoing. "It has to be problem oriented, not discipline oriented," explains DiSalvo. "Our main goal is to help form teams that solve real problems."

The real problems are legion. This fall, the world population surpassed 7 billion. Approximately 3 billion people live in poverty. Every month, more than a million children die of hunger. Forests are disappearing. Species are dying out. The cost of fossil fuels poses environmental, strategic and economic challenges.

These are the sum of millions of smaller problems, most of which fall under the umbrella of sustainability. "We look at sustainability as a giant interconnected system you can't pull apart, or if you do, you're likely to get it wrong," explains DiSalvo. "Most major universities have an energy center. Many have some kind of environmental center, and then some have development or poverty centers. Cornell is almost unique in putting all the pieces together."

Read more at EZRA Magazine.