Erin Hopper, PhD
Director for Programs and Grants, Institute for Convergent Science
As Director for Programs and Grants, Erin Hopper, PhD serves as a bridge between Innovate Carolina and the Institute for Convergent Science. She designs and implements innovation support programs, builds relationships with public and private funding agencies, establishes and strengthens partnerships both inside and outside the university, and provides strategic guidance on the formulation of new ideas and initiatives. She relishes turning great ideas into concrete, actionable plans to move ideas and strategies forward.
Why is UNC a great fit for the Institute for Convergent Science – and what makes ICS unique?
UNC’s world-class faculty and highly ranked departments and schools provide critical ingredients for translating research into societal impact. However, academic excellence is not enough to solve the most pressing problems that our world faces. ICS provides a way to bring together those individual pockets of excellence into cohesive new teams poised to function in a coordinated, deliberate fashion. The teams are supported by facilitators, team integration specialists, and commercialization experts who help to maximize the teams’ potential. UNC’s location in a regional environment that includes prominent universities, community colleges, research institutes, and the Research Triangle Park will further increase the potential impact of these ICS-supported teams.
How will ICS impact the local and global community?
ICS uses team science and convergent approaches to address global challenges that are sticky and complex. It moves research forward not only in a way that builds knowledge, but also in a manner that can benefit people’s lives, such as finding cures for diseases, addressing water quality, and promoting social impact. We want to see ICS position itself toward benefiting people in the real world. Locally and more subtly, ICS can impact the culture at UNC through establishing new partnerships and breaking down silos between individual schools and departments.
At ICS, we are asking faculty to explore a new way of working. This will require significant commitment and willingness among faculty to be adaptable and flexible, which makes faculty who engage in ICS part of a very special group. Learning how to encourage a culture that is more conducive to team science and collaboration will require us to carefully develop appropriate support programs and incentive structures for faculty in a way that is beneficial both to individual faculty and to the University as a whole.
How does your professional background and your training as a chemist inform your role in ICS?
Before coming to ICS, my career spanned a variety of research administration roles, including developing graduate education support programs in the UNC School of Medicine and working at the UNC System Office in a role that involved developing and directing systemwide grant programs, coordinating research activities among UNC institutions, and providing statewide reporting on research expenditures and commercialization indicators for the UNC System. These experiences have given me the ability to see from a variety of angles the ways in which scientific enterprises operate, including the challenges and benefits of collaboration, both within single institutions and across multiple institutions. I also lean on my scientific training, including my doctoral training in bioanalytical chemistry and my postdoctoral training in structural biology in a national laboratory. This background gives me perspective into how academic and federal research labs work that would have been difficult for me to obtain in any other way. It helped me build the vocabulary of a scientist, understand the daily challenges and rigors of academic science, and get comfortable working on the boundaries of what is known to science and what is yet to be discovered.
Who are the collaborators at UNC, and how can they get support for their ideas?
ICS encourages participation of diverse faculty across all disciplines. We would like to see ICS be selective and focused with respect to the problems it seeks to solve, while taking a broad and inclusive approach to building teams that will work on these problems. ICS will encourage both internal relationships among UNC faculty and external relationships with industry partners, government entities, and regional universities and community colleges. These external relationships will be critical to helping ICS define and select problems to tackle and to building out effective teams. Ultimately, the level and scope of collaborative relationships within individual projects will be defined by the project itself and the problems it seeks to approach.
What are the most rewarding parts of working with both Innovate Carolina and ICS?
It is incredibly rewarding to support the scientific enterprise by finding ways to encourage collaboration across disciplines, reduce barriers to progress, and provide support structures to make researchers’ jobs easier. My role as a bridge between Innovate Carolina and ICS ensures that we maintain close communication, that we make informed decisions, and that our activities are aligned toward helping the Institute realize its full potential. Ensuring that ICS is developed according to best practices in innovation and technology commercialization will be critical to its success, which makes it necessary that our units work together seamlessly. We are fortunate to have a leadership team that draws from deep experience in innovation practices, technology commercialization, science administration, higher education administration, and faculty research.
How do the science and practice of team science fit into ICS?
It is easy to assume that collaborative relationships should form organically, that is, people should want to work together because working together leads to better outcomes for everyone involved. However, there are many facets of collaborative relationships outside the exercise of bringing the right types of expertise to the table. Team members must have a desire to work together, a trust among members, an understanding of roles, and an agreement on desired goals and outcomes. The logistics of collaborative work make it more time- and labor-intensive than independent research projects, especially when the team has first formed, but the potential outcomes far exceed what individual researchers can accomplish on their own. Team science provides a scaffolding of process and support infrastructure that teams do not often endeavor to develop on their own. ICS will provide these supports by teaching faculty and researchers how to engage in team science best practices and by providing staff support, such as innovation postdocs who assist with team integration, project management, and commercialization support.