MCubed conference celebrates unique research collaborations


Hundreds of people from far-flung corners of U-M gathered Friday for the inaugural MCubed conference, a celebration of the seed grant program’s first funding year and a showcase of the 200-plus projects it’s making possible.

Attendees heard a long-buried recording of Louis Armstrong singing “When the Saints Go Marching In” in Tunisia. They saw — projected on the ceiling — an ethereal visualization of the dark energy force that is speeding up the expansion of the universe. And they listened to iPod co-inventor and U-M alum Tony Fadell tell his story of success — and failure.

more information

Faculty from all MCubed projects participated, so the event, in a sense, brought the breadth of the program to life. Since last November, it has divvied up $14 million in $60,000 grants to trios of professors from at least two different disciplines.

“There really is a deep pent-up demand for funding these collaborations,” said Matthew Reed, a research associate professor at the U-M Transportation Research Institute and the College of Engineering. “A lot of people may have said that at an institution that does $1.25 billion in research every year, these grants weren’t much. But you can see here today that $60,000 is enough for people to pursue ideas that otherwise wouldn’t get funded.” 

Reed, who works primarily in ergonomics and auto safety, is involved in an MCubed project with pediatricians to study whether body shape could be a tool to predict whether an overweight child’s weight will be dangerous or not.

More than 200 interdisciplinary projects known as “cubes” were presented at the first annual MCubed Symposium in the Michigan League on Friday. (Photo by Joseph Xu, College of Engineering)

Friday’s symposium included nine 10-minute TED-like talks from selected projects.

It was during one of these that Kelly Askew, associate professor of anthropology, played the Armstrong snippet, in addition to a clip from a Tanzanian jazz band and another from folk singer Jane Voss. Askew is working with researchers in the School of Information to build an interactive website with thousands of hours of orphaned music recordings from both The Ark in Ann Arbor and from Africa.

“There’s high interest in unpublished musical recordings, and there’s high value in them as documentary evidence,” Askew said.

“We want to build social memory around it,” added David Wallace, clinical associate professor of information. The team will also work to arrive at alternative copyright arrangements that could perhaps serve as models for other historical music collections.

Another TED-like talk came from a physicist, a musician and an artist. The professors involved in Jeweled Net of the Vast Invisible are planning a public multimedia production to help convey the concept of dark energy and help others to “revel in the unfolding story of everything,” as Greg Tarle, professor of physics, put it. The team gave a preview at the symposium.

“Who among us is not moved by the vast expanse of stars that decorate the sky at night,” Tarle said. “The heavy elements that make our bodies were forged in these stars. Our earth, our bodies are made of stardust.”

It’s not easy to make the awe-inspiring understandable without trivializing it, said Jim Cogswell, professor of art and design. But he believes this cube is up for the task.

“The job of an artist is to call our attention to the overlooked, the unconsidered,” Cogswell said.

Stephen Rush, professor of performing arts technology, is writing two musical pieces inspired by what he’s learned working on the project. The three hope to hold their show in April 2014.

“Imagine a drive-in movie with this stuff on it,” he said, pointing to the galaxies projected onto the ceiling. “With electronic music from enormous speakers and food late at night under the stars. That’s what we’re going to do.”

Rush thanked MCubed for the opportunity to learn, as he put it, several “meta-human truths” — one of which is about our shared heritage.

“We are all the same thing,” Rush said. “We are star people. We come from the same primordial boom.” 


Leave a comment

Commenting is closed for this article. Please read our comment guidelines for more information.