Greg Copenhaver, PhD
Director of the Institute for Convergent Science and Chancellor’s Eminent Professor of Convergent Science
Greg Copenhaver, PhD., is the Director of the Institute for Convergent Science and Chancellor’s Eminent Professor of Convergent Science. He serves as Associate Dean for Research and Innovation in the College of Arts & Sciences and holds joint appointments in the Department of Biology and the Integrative Program for Biological and Genome Sciences. Copenhaver works to bring multidisciplinary teams together to address society’s most intractable problems to benefit the citizens of North Carolina and beyond. He will work to define the activities, mission and vision for the institute’s future with his focus revolving around a central question: how does ICS support research that creates new innovations and translates them into companies, technologies or other modes of impact in the world?CHe also will focus on creating a hub where all activity becomes visible and interconnected in a single place. A Tar Heel through and through, Copenhaver has spent his entire professional academic career as a member of the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty, beginning in 2001.
How do you define convergence science?
Traditionally, academic research has been viewed as scholar-centered. The University attracts brilliant scholars from across the globe, and they develop research programs over the course of years to make progress by studying their specific slice of a broad field, often becoming the singularly greatest expert in that area. I think convergent science turns that paradigm on its head. Convergent science seeks to identify pressing problems at some scale, whether they are local, statewide, national or global problems. And then brings together multi-disciplinary experts or teams who can help address them, figuring out innovation-based paths toward providing solutions. So it starts with the problem rather than a person.
What is the innovation framework at ICS?
We’re using what we call the “Ready, Set, Go” framework. At the ready stage, researchers come together to form teams, brainstorm and identify problems and possible solutions to formulate research approaches that have an innovation theme at heart. At the Set stage, teams are vetted and provided with both financial and physical resources to assess the viability of their innovative solutions. They’re given some space and money to try out their idea through a “go-hard and fail-early” sort of paradigm. In the Go stage, the projects have undergone a metamorphosis from classic academic research to being restructured into something that’s more compatible with commercialization or other innovation inflection points.
In addition, there are physical spaces of ICS that align with each phase, and those are all housed in the state-of-the-art Genome Science Building at the heart of UNC’s campus. Alongside these phases, getting teams more comfortable with being conversant in the commercialization world is key. As they move through these phases and begin to work more closely with teams who work on intellectual property, entrepreneurial mentoring and commercialization coaching, ICS helps teams work within the larger framework of the University.
Why is it valuable for researchers to have an entrepreneurial mindset and skillset?
When I was coming up in my field, it was completely expected that you would come to the table being an expert in your narrow field. Today, when people transition from undergraduate into graduate school, they often have exposure in at least two major disciplines so that they can do work in the interstitial space between disciplines. And by the time you get to the postdoctoral, faculty and professional staff levels, people bring multiple sets of expertise to the table, whether that be experimental biology combined with coding or skills in writing and communicating research.
Combining those kinds of disciplines is now sort of the standard. What that means is that you’ve got to be able to look at any given problem through multiple lenses. In my case, I’m going to view it right now through a genetics lens and think about it in the way that I’ve been trained as a geneticist. But then I’m going to step back and try to view it through a big data lens. Once I get the data, how am I going to work with it? What new solutions can I bring to bear viewing it through that lens? And then, entrepreneurship and innovation gives you one more lens to view a problem through. Any scholar is going to benefit by having more lenses for any given problem. We become myopic if we only view a problem through a single lens, whereas if we have a broader array of lenses, we can reach new solutions.
Why is UNC a great fit for convergent science?
It comes down to the people here at Carolina. I am literally humbled each time I meet my colleagues and see the amazing work they’re doing. We have some of the brightest minds on the planet right here on this campus, and being able to connect with them and have them focus on problems that make a difference to people is a rare opportunity.
I’ve also seen a transition at the University that’s been one of moving from a primarily research institution to now one that is more inclusive of innovation and research. I want to stress that this isn’t a shift of focus but rather an expansion of focus. We have expanded the portfolio of research that we’ve done at the University, and I think that’s really important. We haven’t lost anything, nothing has been displaced in order to add this to our portfolio. This is happening at a lot of different levels at the University. It begins at the undergraduate level with programs like the Shuford Program in Entrepreneurship, which does a really fantastic job of welcoming our entrepreneurial minded undergraduates into this innovation world. And then that mindset goes all the way up to our chief innovation officer and the University’s central Innovate Carolina team.
But even with this framework, from the undergraduate level all the way up to campus leaders who run these innovation and entrepreneurship programs, none of it would have happened if there hadn’t been visionary leaders who wanted to embrace innovation and entrepreneurship on campus and who have carried that vision forward through today. It’s remarkable for a University to have that kind of commitment to a vision over several different generations of leadership, and I think sticking with that commitment has allowed us to now be a national leader in this space.
Why is a culture of collaboration important?
I’m passionate about collaborative research. It’s a style that I’ve used for my own research since being given the opportunity to run a research team here at the University. I believe all modern research, no matter what discipline you’re in, is done collaboratively at some level. People who may view themselves as solo researchers often work with students and staff to accomplish their ends. When you start getting into some of the more STEM-oriented research disciplines, it’s the collaborative team-based model that has been the standard now for decades. I think what’s changed recently is that the interstitial spaces between disciplines has become an incredibly productive area to find solutions. Years ago, you had people getting a lot of return from investing deeply in thought, resources and money just within chemistry, biology or physics. But what people are finding now is that if you can find the interface between those disciplines and demonstrate that it’s providing synergistic benefits, then you can often make more progress than you would working solely within your own area.