President’s office announces $10.9 million for third round of strategic funding awardees

A program for enhancing access to cancer screenings, a center for advancing cell and gene therapies, an AI-augmented learning platform for mathematics, and a digital humanities lab are among 10 new projects receiving strategic funding at the University of Florida, President Ben Sasse announced today. The funding initiative is designed to advance interdisciplinary scholarship and enhance the student experience.

“These exceptional initiatives will not only elevate UF’s standing as a national research leader but also transform lives here in Florida and around the world,” Sasse said. “UF continues to put this strategic funding to excellent use. We are facing and solving some of the biggest problems of our generation through the kind of interdisciplinary, collaborative work that will change lives for years to come.” 
After UF received $130 million in new funding from the Florida Legislature this year, Sasse established that, for the first time, more than half of the funds would be directed to units for special strategic projects. A total of $24 million was delivered to deans to report back on their strategic uses of funds, and another $50 million was made available across all colleges and administrative units.

UF received more than 250 submissions, and 36 proposals have been selected so far and announced in three rounds. A final round of proposals will be announced at a future date.

The first round of 19 proposals were awarded $13.4 million in funding on Oct. 3, and the second round of seven proposals were awarded $5.4 million on Nov. 13. Feasibility studies have informed proposal selection. The following 10 were selected in the third round to receive a total of $10,872,000:

  • College of Medicine (supported by the College of Pharmacy and the College of Veterinary Medicine): Regional Center for Development of Advanced Therapeutics Based on Cell and Gene Therapy, $1.5 million over three years – Funding will support the development of a first-of-its-kind center in the Southeast that will help bring to market novel treatments in advanced cell and gene therapeutics.
  • UF Health Cancer Center (supported by the College of Medicine): Expanding Access to Breast Cancer Screening in North Central Florida, $1.5 million over one year – The Office of Community Outreach and Engagement will enhance access to cancer screenings by bringing a mobile mammography unit to underserved communities, while reducing the cost burden on existing healthcare facilities.
  • College of Education: SALT-Math: Scalable AI-Augmented Learning by Teaching for Math Education, $930,000 over three years – This project aims to revolutionize K-12 mathematics learning in Florida and beyond by implementing a learning-by-teaching framework that uses a large language model to flip students' roles as teachers to AI agents (resulting in enhanced student outcomes).
  • College of Education: UF Stars: Illuminating Pathways for Undergraduate Research and Innovation, $330,000 over three years – This initiative will pair undergraduates with faculty for research opportunities, increasing the number of University Scholars Program applicants, growing the participation in the College of Education Research Symposium, supporting graduate assistantships, and rewarding excellence in faculty mentorship of undergraduate researchers.
  • College of Public Health & Health Professions: AI Applications to Pediatric Neuromedicine, $480,000 over three years – Funding will expand investment in AI, neuromedicine, and imaging to develop learning-powered assessments that will enhance quality of life for children and adults with neuromuscular diseases.
  • McKnight Brain Institute: Transforming Stroke Care, $1 million over one year – This multidisciplinary, collaborative research project will help UF stroke clinicians, clinical investigators, basic translational scientists, and AI experts create training pathways for UF students to become stroke AI researchers.
  • College of Medicine (supported by UF Health and UF Research): Toward a Health Metaverse, $2 million over one year – The goal is to develop the physical and digital infrastructure for an Intelligent Virtual Hospital – a space in which healthcare providers and patients can virtually gather, learn, train, and create content using extended reality and Web3 applications (such as blockchain and virtual assets).
  • College of Liberal Arts and Sciences: Digital Humanities Lab, $632,000 over four years – This lab will offer coursework, experiential learning, and professional development opportunities to students and faculty, as well as invite a cross-section of Floridians to engage with UF’s research through public-facing content developed across a range of new media.
  • College of Medicine – Jacksonville: Precision Autism Center of Excellence, $500,000 over one year – The creation of this center will expand the clinical capacity for the diagnostic evaluation, management, and treatment of children and adults with neurodevelopmental disorders, while increasing external research funding and support from pharmaceutical and diagnostic genomics companies.
  • Information Technology: Research Software Engineers to Enhance/Scale Computer Research, $2 million over one year – Funding will help create a team of research software engineers to use existing infrastructures like HiPerGator to carry out technically advanced tasks for funded research projects (such as writing professional-quality scientific software, and helping faculty address increased data management and research reproducibility requirements). 

With enhanced visibility for their projects, the awardees can now watch their visions come to fruition.

“As a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center, the UF Health Cancer Center is charged with addressing the burden of cancer in the large area we serve, with a strong focus on rural and aging populations,” said Jonathan D. Licht, M.D., the director of the UF Health Cancer Center. “Our goal is to reduce the burden of late-stage cancer diagnoses and mortality through early detection and personalized services that help people access the treatment they need.”

Jennifer Bizon, Ph.D., the director of the McKnight Brain Institute, expressed gratitude for the funding of the Transforming Stroke Care project.

“We are grateful for these strategic funds, which will further propel the McKnight Brain Institute’s multidisciplinary research efforts in stroke prevention and treatment,” Bizon said. “This project, under Dr. Brian Hoh’s leadership, exemplifies our mission to build research collaborations among clinical and basic science investigators across our UF and UF Health campuses that will improve outcomes and change lives.”

Beth A. Virnig, Ph.D., M.P.H., dean of the College of Public Health & Health Professions, looks forward to improving patients’ lives through the AI Applications to Pediatric Neuromedicine project.

“This will lead to more effective treatments for devastating disorders that contribute to lifelong disabilities,” Virnig said. “The project brings together a powerhouse of UF expertise in magnetic resonance imaging, neuromuscular disease, physiology, and AI – to bring about real-world improvements in health outcomes and quality of life for children with muscular dystrophy and their families.”

Colleen Koch, M.D., dean of the College of Medicine, championed the funding of the Toward a Health Metaverse project.

“This will enable the creation of a groundbreaking Intelligent Virtual Hospital and a regional center for the development of advanced therapeutics, both of which will have a transformative impact in Florida and across the region,” Koch said.

The College of Medicine’s cell and gene therapy initiative also has incredible, innovative potential.

“The opportunity to develop transformative cell and gene therapy products for severe medical conditions will continue to position UF as an international leader in the new discipline of genetic medicine,” said Barry Byrne, M.D., Ph.D., the director of UF’s Powell Gene Therapy Center. “We are grateful for the support of the strategic funding award to advance these innovative faculty ideas across the academic health center and to train the next generation of clinician-scientists in advanced therapeutics.”

The Research Software Engineers project will help build expertise in computer science research and further strengthen UF’s campus-wide AI initiatives.

“President Sasse’s strategic investment in research will transform how UF faculty envision the application of use-inspired AI spanning all disciplines,” said UF Vice President and Chief Information Officer Elias G. Eldayrie.

Linda R. Edwards, M.D., dean of the College of Medicine – Jacksonville, is optimistic that the Precision Autism Center of Excellence will have a significant effect on healthcare outcomes.

“We are thrilled to be receiving this opportunity to provide additional support to individuals with autism,” Edwards said. “As the number of children born with autism and related disorders continues to rise, our capacity to diagnose and offer treatment has been stretched. Even after diagnosis, access to needed services often gets delayed. Knowing that the center will enhance our capacity to offer care adds hope and excitement for the future.”

Another exciting initiative is the Digital Humanities Lab, which will enrich and amplify humanities research.

“We are now in a knowledge and technology revolution that is transforming higher education and the global economy,” said David Richardson, Ph.D., dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “Every liberal arts discipline is redefining its methods and asking new research questions, and the humanities are no exception. In this facility, historians, philosophers, and literary scholars will collaborate with engineers and scientists in exciting, new ways.”

And the SALT-Math and UF Stars projects from the College of Education are sure to help reshape the learning and teaching landscape.

“As evidenced by these projects, faculty and students at the college continue to make incredible strides in translating research into practice,” said Glenn Good, Ph.D., dean of the College of Education. “This alignment of efforts across the university will prove to be transformative, unlocking benefits that will strengthen our society.”

UF News December 4, 2023