The University of Massachusetts Amherst
University of Massachusetts Amherst

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MIE’s Marquard and Lackner Selected as UMass Amherst Public Engagement Faculty Fellows

Professors Jenna Marquard and Matthew Lackner of our Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (MIE) Department have been chosen as two of the seven faculty members from UMass Amherst named as Public Engagement Faculty Fellows by the Public Engagement Project (PEP). PEP supports and trains faculty members to use their research for contributing to social change, informing public policy, and enriching public debate. Marquard is performing groundbreaking work on health information technology, while Lackner is doing pioneering research on floating offshore wind turbines.

Each PEP fellow will receive a $1,500 stipend and technical training in communicating with non-academic audiences. The PEP fellows will also travel to Beacon Hill to share their research with Massachusetts lawmakers.

“As a Faculty Fellow,” explained Amy Schalet, the director of PEP and an associate professor in the Department of Sociology, “you will be meeting twice per month during the 2018 spring semester and attending panels and skill-building workshops offered by faculty, communications experts from University Relations, and others experienced with public engagement. You will also receive peer mentoring tailored to your personal public engagement plan, as well as the opportunity to present your research to Massachusetts lawmakers.”

Both Marquard and Lackner submitted PEP proposals to help secure their fellowships.

“The significance of my research for lay audiences,” said Marquard, “is that my work seeks to improve health by helping clinicians (e.g., physicians and nurses) make better decisions. The nature of these decisions is diverse, ranging from physicians making clinical diagnoses to making decisions with patients about how to manage their chronic diseases.”

Marquard explained that there are two key reasons why she has reached the right stage in her career to become more publically engaged with her health technology research.

“First,” as she noted, “I am 10 years into my faculty career, and most of that time has been spent doing descriptive research understanding how clinicians make decisions and what information they would like in order to make these decisions. I have recently started transitioning from descriptive research into design-based research. My focus now is largely on how visualization can play a key role in effectively presenting large amounts of data to clinicians.”

Marquard’s second reason for becoming more publicly engaged at this time is that the field of data visualization is in its infancy within the health information technology field. “There is significant awareness that data visualization is a key way for large amounts of health data to be meaningfully conveyed to clinicians,” she said. “But, there is naiveté about the fundamental design process behind creating understandable and useful data visualizations. If I can impact this discussion now, I will have a much more powerful voice and ability to set the research agenda for this field.”

Lackner explained that “My core research focuses on floating offshore wind turbines, which are a novel technology that will allow wind turbines to operate in much deeper waters than traditional offshore wind turbines.”

Lackner went on to explain that the kind of deep-water offshore wind turbines he works on are supported by a floating structure moored to the ocean floor. “While floating offshore wind turbines can unlock the vast deep-water wind resource, they also present additional complications. In particular, a floating wind turbine can move much more in response to the wind and waves, because it is no longer fixed to the ocean floor. My research focuses on better understanding the behavior of floating wind turbines, especially the aerodynamics and structural motions.”

Lackner added that “The message I want to communicate is that my research has the potential to improve the technical and financial viability of these systems. By better understanding their behavior, my research may allow improved designs that are more efficient, reliable, and cost-effective.”

As one example of his work improving such designs, Lackner’s recent research has focused on optimizing the blade design for floating wind turbines. Because the turbines buffet in the wind and water much more than conventional turbines, different blade designs are needed to maximize efficiency.

As he said, “Along with my core technical research on floating wind turbines, I have been leading an effort to develop a ‘Vision’ for a National Research Network in offshore wind. With my UMass colleagues, I have partnered with other universities to develop this vision.”

PEP is perfect for both Marquard and Lackner because it helps faculty members build their own networks of institutions and individuals who can apply their research findings, and it helps create institutional spaces for communication between academics and non-academics who do applied work in common areas of expertise. This public engagement not only expands the impact of research on society, it also improves the quality of research.

“We are excited about continuing to build an interdisciplinary cadre of publicly engaged faculty at UMass,” said Schalet. “More than ever, we need university based scholars to share their research outside the academy so that journalists, policymakers, practitioners, and others can use it.” (January 2018)