Skip to main content

Saint Louis University Header Logo Center

Menu Search & Directory

Big Ideas

The Research Institute is investing in Big Ideas that will drive Saint Louis University's research enterprise into the future. The Big Ideas competition is a multi-year process to identify and invest in collaborative projects that will establish SLU as a leading destination for research, training and innovation.

The three faculty members in this video are the co-leaders of GeoSLU, one of three groups to receive a $50,000 planning grant as part of the Big Ideas Competition. The Research Institute supports each of the Big Ideas groups as they develop their projects.

A Call for Big Ideas

SLU is in the process of identifying and investing in collaborative programs that will establish the University as a leading destination for research, training and innovation in a given topic or area. This competition began with a call for “Big Ideas” from SLU researchers and offers increasing levels of investment for projects that demonstrate broad faculty engagement, strong leadership and compelling research plans.

SLU's Research Institute provides support to each of the selected projects and faculty leadership teams as they develop their Big Idea into a genuine asset of  the University's research enterprise.

Submitting Your Big Idea

Proposals are currently being accepted for the second round of Big Ideas planning grants. Applications are due by 11:59 p.m. on February 28, 2019.  Applications should be submitted via the Openwater portal. Log in to and click on the Openwater icon in the "Tools" tab. You can log in using your SLUNet ID. The first time you log in, you will be asked to set up your profile.

2019 Request for Big Ideas

SLU’s Research Growth Committee, composed of senior administrators and faculty leaders representing the diversity of the University's research portfolio (medicine, life sciences, physical sciences, social sciences, humanities), selects proposals to receive planning grants.

If you are considering applying for a planning grant as part of the Big Ideas competition, we encourage you to discuss your idea with Jasmin Patel, assistant vice president for research strategy (, as early in the process as possible.

The winners of the first round of Big Ideas planning grants can be viewed below. 

Projects That Received Planning Grants

Three proposals were selected to move forward with $50,000 planning grants to advance their ideas prior to submitting a full research and business plan in six to nine months.

Planning for the Development of a SLU Center for Systems Biology

 Leadership Team:

  • Daniel Hoft, M.D., Ph.D., infectious diseases, School of Medicine
  • Jim Edwards, Ph.D., chemistry, College of Arts and Sciences
  • Maureen Donlin, Ph.D., biochemistry and molecular biology, School of Medicine
  • Haijun Gong, Ph.D., mathematics and statistics, College of Arts and Sciences

Systems biology research represents one of the most cutting-edge areas in the biomedical fields with great potential to improve our understanding of complex mammalian processes. Research discoveries in systems biology can be translated into new treatments and preventive strategies for maintaining optimal public health.

At Saint Louis University, a highly collaborative group of diverse scientists have already begun to plan for the development a SLU Center for Systems Biology. This group has found great success in developing a world-class systems biology group focused on infectious disease and vaccinology research, and is currently building new strengths at the university in more diverse biomedical areas of systems biology.

The group will bring in leading experts in the field as consultants to advise them on what gaps in expertise are needed to optimize the group’s strengths in the area. There are many potential revenue sources in systems biology research, and these world-class advisers will provide their best advice to help the group become maximally competitive with large grant applications. The existing group has already received a VTEU award exceeding $6 million, and they are confident they will soon become competitive for even larger projects. A systems biology seminar series will also be initiated to further increase expertise and contacts in the field, and the group will complete small pilot projects for generation of publishable data.

Planning for the WATER Institute

Leadership Team:

  • Amanda Cox, Ph.D., P.E., civil engineering, Parks College of Engineering, Aviation and Technology
  • Liz Hasenmueller, Ph.D., earth and atmospheric sciences, College of Arts and Sciences
  • Craig Adams, Ph.D., P.E., F.ASCE, civil engineering, Parks College of Engineering, Aviation and Technology

Though there are many challenges related to water resources today, the National Academy of Engineering lists three grand challenges related to water: providing access to clean water, restoring and improving urban infrastructure, and managing the nitrogen cycle. The Water Access, Technology, Environment and Resources (WATER) Institute at Saint Louis University will address all of these challenges by leveraging the expertise of SLU faculty, serving as both an incubator for externally-funded ideas, and by acting as a catalyst for enhanced regional, national and international research collaborations. This institute will focus on developing solutions for water in the built environment, protecting aquatic ecosystems and water supply, and developing clean water access worldwide. There are several sources of potential grant funding for this work including the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Water Research Foundation.

There is currently no comprehensive water research institute in the American Midwest and there is also a large gap in urban water research. SLU is uniquely positioned to fill both of these roles given its location in the city of St. Louis and the city’s location at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.

The ultimate goal of the WATER Institute is in line with the Jesuit values of Saint Louis University: to serve humanity by addressing public health issues related to water in developed and developing nations and to protect society from natural and man-made water-related disasters.

GeoSLU: The SLU Geospatial Research, Training and Innovation Enterprise

Leadership Team:

  • Vasit Sagan, Ph.D., earth and atmospheric Sciences, College of Arts and Sciences
  • Ness Sandoval, Ph.D., sociology and anthropology, College of Arts and Sciences
  • Enbal Shacham, Ph.D., behavioral science and health education, College for Public Health and Social Justice

Geospatial science and technology research is a multibillion-dollar industry, and people with advanced geospatial skills are increasingly in demand in the workforce. Saint Louis University has a unique opportunity to coordinate and grow the already rich geospatial research and training underway at the university to become a major player in geospatial research, training and innovation.

GeoSLU: The SLU Geospatial Research, Training and Innovation Enterprise will be a consortium of faculty and students from various disciplines that will promote and develop new research ideas and house high-tech computational facilities to advance research, and enhance graduate and undergraduate education. The GeoSLU enterprise will be built upon three pillars: research, data support services and teaching and training services.

The GeoSLU team has already identified several new resources and activities that will enhance the enterprise’s ability to pursue and win new grants in geospatial research. These include pursuing U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF) accreditation of a Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT) certificate at SLU and a new partnership with the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) that will promote funded research.

Projects That Received Preliminary Planning Grants

The Research Growth Committee also received a variety of projects that do not currently fit the Big Idea criteria and is providing small seed funds to enable these teams to continue to collaborate.

Five groups received preliminary planning grants to further grow their ideas.

Planning for the SLU Institute for Drug and Biotherapeutic Innovation (SLU-IDBI)

 Leadership Team:

  •  John Tavis, Ph.D., molecular microbiology and immunology, School of Medicine
  • Marvin Meyers, Ph.D., chemistry, College of Arts and Sciences
  • Jack Kennell, Ph.D., biology, College of Arts and Sciences

 The paradigm for drug development is shifting away from the old model in which drug discovery was largely done by major pharmaceutical companies. Today, these companies outsource much of this work to universities and more nimble units in academia. The Saint Louis University Institute for Drug and Biotherapeutic Innovation – also known as SLU-IDBI –is a forum for multidisciplinary collaboration among SLU faculty interested in drug discovery and development that will seize on this shift.

SLU-IDBI brings together researchers at SLU who are conducting research related to drug development to share expertise, stimulate ideas, and foster collaboration. 35 SLU faculty members from 12 administrative units have so far joined the group. Skills of SLU-IDBI members cover the full spectrum of drug discovery and development, including target identification and validation, inhibitor screening, chemical optimization of screening hits, pharmacological optimization of hits, and clinical trials.

The formation of SLU-IDBI will help faculty obtain multi-PI grants, expand externally funded collaborative drug development grant and investment income, and provide an external face for SLU drug development research. SLU-IDBI will also expand translational research agreements with biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, particularly through the local St. Louis entrepreneurial community.

The work of SLU-IDBI has already begun. The group defined the goals of the forum during Summer 2017 with support from a Spark Microgrant from SLU’s Office of the Vice President for Research. 

Learn More about SLU-D3G

Planning for the Center for Healthy Living

 Leadership Team:

  •  Tricia Austin, Ph.D., PT, ATC physical therapy, Doisy College of Health Sciences
  • Gretchen Salsich, Ph.D., PT, physical therapy, Doisy College of Health Sciences
  • Jeremiah Weinstock, Ph.D., psychology, College of Arts and Sciences

What if you could walk down any sidewalk on any street in St. Louis and purchase a healthy snack or play pickup basketball? What if you could get a physical or mental health screening, a dental check-up, tips on exercising with chronic joint pain, resources for smoking cessation, or information to prevent sexually transmitted diseases?

What if healthy behaviors were habits instead of things we think about, but rarely do?

A group of faculty believes Saint Louis University could be the place where this idealistic vision for St. Louis becomes a reality, and they are working toward a Center for Healthy Living that will do just that. The Center for Health Living will be a center for lifestyle optimization that will facilitate sustained healthy behaviors and rigorously study the role of health risk behaviors in chronic disease prevention and management in the St. Louis community. While such centers do exist, they are often costly and largely inaccessible to populations that most need such services. The Jesuit mission of Saint Louis University perfectly positions the institution to be the model for effective prevention and management of chronic disease. The Center will have a unique research focus that will inform multi-disciplinary intervention strategies for sustained healthy living in St. Louis.

The Health Informatics Group

 Leadership Team:

  • Mark Gaynor, Ph.D., College for Public Health and Social Justice
  • Michelle Sabick, Ph.D., Parks College of Engineering, Aviation, and Technology
  • Leslie Hinyard, Ph.D., Saint Louis University Center for Health Outcomes Research, School of Medicine
  • William Manard, M.D., chief medical informatics officer, SLU Care; and family and community medicine, School of Medicine

Medical devices in hospitals and doctor’s offices are increasingly connected to the Internet, and the rapid expansion in wearable health devices and electronic medical records has created a new set of opportunities and challenges in designing, using, and harvesting data from these connected devices to improve human health.

The vision of the Health Informatics Group at Saint Louis University is to become a nationally recognized, comprehensive center for data driven innovation and research to improve the health of individuals and populations through the develop of devices, applications, data collection, and analytic strategies. This center will bring together SLU faculty from several different disciplines to perform idea-to-bedside research, including design and rapid prototyping of smart or sensor-enabled devices for medical use, complex data and trend analysis, and data storage and security. These technologies will bring significant opportunity for technology transfer or licensing, and will ultimately help improve quality of life and decrease health care costs. Funding opportunities exist from the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense, and private NGOs such as the Gates Foundation.

This center will help to make Saint Louis University a national leader in data-enabled health care and will improve individual clinical care and overall population health – areas strongly aligned with the university’s Jesuit mission.

Planning for the Institute for Healing Justice and Equity

Leadership Team:

  • Kira Banks, Ph.D., psychology, College of Arts and Sciences
  • Keon Gilbert, DrPh, behavioral science and health education, College for Public Health and Social Justice
  • Amber Johnson, Ph.D., communication, College of Arts and Sciences
  • Ruqaijah Yearby, J.D., M.P.H., School of Law

The 2015 report from the Ferguson Commission outlined the numerous ways racial inequity creates disparities, unfair practices, and injustices that St. Louis’s predominantly Black and marginalized residents experience. Though the findings of this report were valuable, what St. Louis is missing is a centralized place to create solutions.

The Institute for Healing Justice and Racial Equity has the potential to transform Saint Louis University into the epicenter of equitable community building and knowledge curation related to healing from social injustice, trauma, and oppression. The Institute will curate organizational resources, community knowledge, and academic research that contribute to healing from injustice and racial equity. The Institute will focus on the curation of community knowledge and the marriage of lay and academic expertise; the Institute is committed to being honest that the academy does not have the answer, but that the research skills of the academy in collaboration with the indigenous knowledge of the community can generate viable answers.

There are currently no research centers on Healing Justice and Racial Equity affiliated with any Universities in the United States, which means this Institute at Saint Louis University will be the first of its kind. The Institute will attract undergraduate and graduate students, faculty talent, and community organizations. The Institute will serve as a unique hub of intentionally curated healing and equity practices already working around the globe. 

Planning for the Institute for Materials Science for Medicine

Leadership Team:

  • Ryan McCulla, Ph.D., chemistry, College of Arts and Sciences
  • Scott Martin, Ph.D., chemistry, College of Arts and Sciences
  • Scott Sell, Ph.D., biomedical engineering, Parks College of Engineering, Aviation and Technology
  • Steve Buckner, Ph.D., chemistry, College of Arts & Sciences

Materials science is a broad, interdisciplinary field that focuses on the discovery and development of new materials, and the niche of “medical materials science” includes some of Saint Louis University’s most prominent materials science researchers.

The Institute of Materials Science for Medicine at Saint Louis University will house research spanning all aspects of both organic and inorganic materials used in medicine. This will include research on the synthesis of new materials, the characterization of new materials, and the biological and medical application of established materials. This institute will serve as a pipeline of material discovery, fabrication, and application, and its broad focus will include technology development-to-transfer and include everything from material synthesis, testing, analysis, translational research, and commercialization. The interdisciplinary approach of an Institute of Materials Science for Medicine would result in innovative collaborations and new grant submissions.

In a few cases, the Research Growth Committee received multiple proposals on related topics and is encouraging the teams to explore the potential for their respective projects that become part of a more inclusive Big Idea.

Projects Endorsed by the Research Growth Committee

Four proposals were endorsed by the Research Growth Committee as likely college-level research priorities that may have potential to growth into university-wide initiatives.

Planning for the Saint Louis University Center for Food and the Environment

Leadership Team: 

  • Allison Miller, Ph.D., biology, College of Arts and Sciences
  • Flannery Burke, Ph.D., history, College of Arts and Sciences

The Center for Food and the Environment at SLU will focus on a central challenge facing society: how can we feed a growing population, in a changing climate, in an equitable and environmentally sustainable way? Today, pressing issues exist with respect to food equity and access, the development of crops for changing climates, and the need for sustainable agricultural and natural ecosystems. Given the prominence of agriculture in Missouri and Illinois, SLU is uniquely positioned to tackle these issues. The Center will play a leading role in advancing food and ecosystem security on both a local and global scale.

Planning for the Center for Translational Chronic Pain Research

 Leadership Team:

  • Daniela Salvemini, Ph.D., pharmacological and physiological science, School of Medicine

The Institute of Medicine and the American Pain Society estimates that approximately 100 million American adults suffer from chronic pain, and many of these cases go untreated. The Center for Translational Chronic Pain Research will be a multidisciplinary effort to bring together scientists in chronic pain translation research, training and education. There will be four research groups that focus on basic science research, clinical research, treatment research, and education/training research, respectively. The goal of the center will be to take a “personalized approach” to the treatment of chronic pain that will enable the translation of our discoveries and development of novel non-opioid based treatments in patient care – bench to bedside.  

Development of a Saint Louis University Sepsis Center

 Leadership Team:

  • David Ford, Ph.D., biochemistry and molecular biology, School of Medicine
  • Blythe Janowiak Mulligan, Ph.D., biology, College of Arts and Sciences
  • Jane McHowat, Ph.D., pathology, School of Medicine

Sepsis is the most expensive condition treated in hospitals today, costing nearly $24 billion per year. There are currently no sepsis centers in St. Louis. The development of a SLU Sepsis Center would fill this void, while addressing this critical public health need for our community and our nation. Sepsis can be a fatal condition if not treated, so the SLU Sepsis Center will execute community outreach and education to ensure faster diagnoses of patients. 

Planning for the SLU Center for Urban Education Policy and Economic Growth (UEPEG)

Leadership Team:

  •  Takako Nomi, Ph.D., School of Education
  • Gary Ritter, Ph.D., School of Education
  • Heather Bednarek, Ph.D., Richard A. Chaifetz School of Business
  • Michael Podgursky, Ph.D., Richard A. Chaifetz School of Business 

Education underpins many of the most pressing social concerns that urban communities face today. The SLU Center for Urban Education Policy and Economic Growth (UEPEG) will strengthen SLU’s ties with various key partners, including the business community, the city of St. Louis, school districts, social service agencies, community organizations, and state agencies.

While St. Louis has three major research universities, none of these institutions currently conduct large-scale applied policy research in education. Such research, when done at SLU, will directly address the social and economic needs of the communities in St. Louis and beyond.

For more information about this process, contact Jasmin Patel, assistant vice president for research strategy, at