How USC-led innovation can solve global challenges

With nearly $1 billion in actively funded research, USC is among the nation’s leading institutions for innovative, impactful discovery. Leading that effort is Ishwar Puri, who arrived at USC in 2021 and was recently promoted to senior vice president for research and innovation.

In the two years since his arrival, the university has continued to build on its research successes, winning major federal grants for research and innovation in computing, biomedical device and drug therapy development, medical research, as well as collaborative research projects with local governments and organizations that solve social problems and policy issues.

Puri has been charged with increasing interdisciplinary partnerships and speeding up discovery in an era of increasingly tech-dependent, rapid scientific inquiry. We spoke with the internationally recognized scientist and engineer about some of the past year’s major accomplishments, what might be in store for 2023 and how USC-led innovation can solve global challenges.

Congratulations on your new title. The most notable change is the addition of innovation under the umbrella of research. What does that new area of focus represent, practically?

Thank you, but really the story isn’t about me — it’s about USC President Carol L. Folt’s vision for the university since she arrived. During her time at USC, our sponsored research has increased at 7% annually, which would put us close to doubling that figure by 2028 or so. Money isn’t everything; it is trumped by impact. So, Dr. Folt has asked us to work toward audacious moonshots in areas such as computing and health. She has tasked us with improving our impact on society by developing innovative solutions for complex problems.

Money isn’t everything; it is trumped by impact.

Ishwar Puri

Innovation can take many forms. It can be through entrepreneurship, licensing to corporate entities and also thinking in a different way. If you think of sustainability, it’s not just about climate change research or providing solutions for electrification or other forms of renewable energy. Sustainability is about finding the kind of human solutions that will take us away from fossil fuel consumption. It’s finding environmentally friendly ways to eliminate or reduce waste. These are human problems, social science problems, health problems. That is where innovation comes in.

Practically, we are developing a partnership model of innovation and entrepreneurship. We are working with all our schools to help each of them flourish. We help them take their best examples and accelerate these through central means, including the Alfred E. Mann Institute, which is now part of the Office of Research and Innovation.

You mentioned an emphasis on research and innovation that is impactful. What are some examples of USC research that made an impact in 2022?

Due to the depth and breadth of expertise at USC, researchers across the university conduct impactful research every day. One example is our world-leading work in Alzheimer’s disease research. Publications (such as a recent one from Paul Thompson, Arthur Toga and Julie Zissimopoulos) have greatly expanded our collective knowledge of the causes and potential solutions for neurodegenerative cognitive diseases. In other areas, Kristina Lerman and Emilio Ferrara from the USC Information Sciences Institute examined the effects of polarization on social media users. Gale Sinatra co-authored a piece for The Conversation that examined how Hollywood perpetuates myths that fuel science skepticism. And earlier this year, Sergey Nuzhdin partnered with AltaSea at the Port of Los Angeles to open a massive 6,000-square-foot seaweed lab that will help grow the blue economy. These are just a few examples; there are countless others.

How is USC looking to expand its impact in 2023?

The president’s view is that if we’re really going to have an impact, it must be through partnerships. USC has very strong local community partnerships in environmental health, for instance. We’ve also started to form partnerships with area universities, notably with UCLA and Caltech, on grant proposals that combine the strengths of each institution to address complex challenges. In fact, USC is the lead partner of the new National Science Foundation Innovation Corps Hub: West Region, a consortium of engineers and scientists from top research universities in the Western United States. And because we are committed to developing a diverse talent pipeline, we are partnering with minority-serving institutions and community colleges through outreach activities and other partnerships. The president has insisted on and successfully developed a culture of collaboration among university leaders.

That emphasis on collaboration applies within the university as well?

Yes. Take entrepreneurship for example. When you think of entrepreneurship in the university setting, you typically think of the classic tech transfer model: Do some research, and then commercialize it. But the real talent at USC lies in the sheer number of our potential entrepreneurs. We have business-minded undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs and faculty members, and to support them we must meld research with experiential learning, where different parts of the university come together.

We do amazing discovery research. But maybe it’s not just the researcher who takes that work to fruition as a solution. Instead, it is a partnership with students, postdocs and others.

Ishwar Puri

We do amazing discovery research. But maybe it’s not just the researcher who takes that work to fruition as a solution. Instead, it is a partnership with students, postdocs and others. In partnership with the provost and the senior vice president for health sciences, the Office of Research and Innovation now works with deans to develop programs that take advantage of internal partnerships in different areas of the university. We cannot afford to segment or sector different areas because they are synergistic. The future lies in partnership and collaboration.

Speaking of the future, if you were a young researcher, why would you want to be at USC?

It really comes down to three things: excellence, scale and opportunity. Undoubtedly, USC offers excellence and hence we are a great attractor of talent. USC also offers scale. Where else in the world can one go to collaborate with leading scholars in communications, technology and cinematic arts? Not many other places. That school of schools model, and the scales of those schools, coupled with our excellence in health sciences, technology, humanities and the arts is a great launch pad for a young person’s career. In addition, the president’s expansive research vision for the university — increased partnerships; investments in internal support programs like internal grants, startups and mentoring; and her moonshots — provides young researchers with incredible opportunities to rub shoulders with experienced academics who have been in the business for a while and contributes to everyone’s success.

These all combine to make USC a very exciting place to work. I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to be at USC and work with brilliant researchers across disciplines. This truly is an exceptional place with unrivaled talent and leadership.

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