In 2016 the Stanford Catalyst for Collaborative Solutions launched a campus-wide effort to encourage new interdisciplinary research projects that would bring together scholars and practitioners from throughout Stanford’s seven schools and beyond to develop bold solutions to some of the world’s most urgent challenges.

The goal was to encourage risk-taking and meaningful collaboration among researchers working on issues in areas such as health care, the environment, autonomy and security, said John Dabiri, director of Catalyst and a professor of engineering.

John Dabiri, left, Amr Saleh and Jennifer Dionne

John Dabiri, left, director of the Catalyst for Collaborative Solutions, listens as Amr Saleh and Jennifer Dionne present their idea for a faster, cheaper way to identify bacterial infections. (Photo by Afra Pourdad)

“The Catalyst will build upon proven interdisciplinary models used by our institutes across campus. As a nimble mechanism that isn’t tied to one topical area, the Catalyst can continually find new ways to integrate expertise from all seven schools to tackle pressing global problems,” Dabiri said.

This week, the Catalyst announced its first results, which include a three-year, $3 million grant to a team led by materials scientist Jennifer Dionne. They aim to develop a technology to diagnose bacterial infections within hours rather than days or weeks. To turn this breakthrough technology into a frugal medical product, team members with business, economics and public health experience will work to make sure this quick diagnostic tool is affordable in developing nations.

The Catalyst also awarded $450,000 to two teams in one-time, proof-of-principle funding, which Dabiri said will give these cross-campus teams that came together within a relatively compressed timeline in this inaugural funding round an opportunity to further refine their approach.

One of these projects, led by marine biologist Fiorenza Micheli, will use the latest advances in data science to assess risks from the interaction of multiple pressures on oceans, and develop and implement solutions. The other, led by chemical engineer Zhenan Bao, will work on developing a wearable device to measure biomarkers and correlate these signals to mental illnesses.

In addition, the Catalyst announced an initiative to help generate collaborations that might produce new Catalyst proposals involving social sciences, humanities, law, education and other relevant subjects. In the first year, Margaret Levi, professor of political science and director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) at Stanford, will lead an effort to engage key constituencies throughout campus, as well as in industry and government, around issues in the area of automation and artificial intelligence in society. Catalyst advisory board member Garth Saloner, a professor at the Graduate School of Business, will serve as a liaison for a series of interactive activities, including moderated workshops, symposia and dinners.

“New partnerships among social scientists, engineers and scientists will make us better able to understand and respond to the social and ethical consequences of AI, the problems it creates as well as solves and its equitable distribution,” Levi said

Work in progress

Former Law School dean Paul Brest, who sat on the 13-member committee that reviewed the 33 proposals submitted in the Catalyst’s inaugural year, said the entire process made him prouder than ever to be part of Stanford. “Only at a major research university could one find such consistent quality of research,” he said. “Stanford is close to unique in its ability to foster truly interdisciplinary collaborations with the potential for broad societal impact.”

The grant to Dionne’s team exemplifies the characteristics that inspired the Catalyst’s formation. Bacterial infections such as meningitis, tuberculosis and pneumonia are often curable, at least in industrialized nations, given accurate diagnosis and the timely application of the appropriate medicines.

But with current technologies it can take days to identify bacterial pathogens even in the best hospitals, and diagnosis may take weeks in remote areas, delaying treatments and raising mortality rates.

To dramatically cut diagnostic times, Dionne has assembled a team of infectious disease and medical instrumentation experts working on developing a new way to identify pathogens from trace concentrations found in droplets of blood. “The sensitivity and specificity of the proposed technology is the lifesaver,” said team member Amr Saleh, a postdoctoral fellow. The new technique would shrink the detection time to hours, by avoiding the current culture-based process of waiting for bacteria to multiply until they reach a sufficient quantity as to make them identifiable.

Developing the basic rapid-detection technology is only half the challenge because a system that depends on expensive, high-tech instruments would be inaccessible in poorer nations where millions now die needlessly from infections that should be curable. That is the inspiration behind the team’s concurrent effort to package its rapid diagnostic in an inexpensive form, possibly along the lines of a litmus paper.

“An effort like this would be difficult if not impossible to fund through standard mechanisms,” Dabiri said. “But the team’s bold vision for societal impact and genuine integration across traditional disciplines is exactly what we want to support through the Stanford Catalyst.”

The future of the Catalyst

Dabiri said the Catalyst plans to fund two projects at the full three-year, $3 million level next year, as faculty have more time to form teams and refine proposal concepts.

Stanford Engineering Dean Jennifer Widom, who co-chaired the Stanford Engineering Future process from which this initiative emerged, said she is thrilled to see how an idea turned into a highly successful reality. “Seeing the Catalyst move from a grassroots proposal to a funded program in just two years, with several exciting projects and initiatives now underway, I couldn’t be happier or more excited to see how it evolves,” she said.

Dabiri said the most common feedback he has received from faculty is the enthusiastic recommendation for the Catalyst to be expanded as a university-wide program to tackle an even broader range of global challenges. “For the University Long-Range Planning process, I’ll be suggesting that the Catalyst effort be expanded to other schools and perhaps the university at large,” Dabiri said.

Learn more about each team and its plans: