Pop-Up Institutes Tackle Big Research Questions — Quickly

Like temporary art installations and restaurants, pop-up research institutes are gutsy, nimble, and open to the public. (But be fast. They’ll be gone in a month.)

This spring and summer mark the second year that The University of Texas at Austin will host a series of Pop-Up Institutes on campus. Researchers and faculty members from more than 25 different departments will participate in one of three pop-ups that focus on adolescent drug and alcohol addiction, humanistic approaches to healthcare, and planetary habitability.

Unlike traditional research centers that take years of planning and huge financial commitments to come to fruition, Pop-Up Institutes are month-long intense interdisciplinary brainstorming sessions sprinkled with roundtable conversations and presentations from internationally renowned experts in their fields. The topics are bold and so are each team’s goals.

But while the pop-ups themselves may be temporary, the collaborations they catalyze are meant to be long-lasting.

For more information about each 2018 Pop-Up Institute, including full lists of participants and events that are open to the public, please visit each institute’s webpage.

“I’m a person in long-term recovery,” she says without hesitating. “You can write that.”

Lori Holleran Steiker is throwing words and diagrams on a whiteboard so quickly that I know she’s done it 100 times before, but her excitement is so palpable it feels like I’m her first audience.

She’s walking — more like sprinting, actually — through descriptions and personal anecdotes of all the people, departments, and community groups that have joined forces to work on her next big project.

And it is big.

Steiker is a University Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Steve Hicks School of Social Work and has been at The University of Texas at Austin for almost 20 years. Her calling? Studying and developing evidence-based substance abuse intervention programs for teens and young adults.

Now she’s coming together with more than three dozen researchers, students, and community advocates to launch this year’s first Pop-Up Institute — an ambitious endeavor with many objectives but with one overarching goal: to save lives.

And it’s all happening through an initiative at UT Austin designed to support researchers looking to push beyond their academic comfort zones, and at a fraction of the time and cost than the traditional research center.

Temporary Locations, Permanent Collaborations

The Pop-Up Institute initiative, which began in 2016, invites faculty members and researchers from all schools and units to form interdisciplinary teams around a common idea, then to submit proposals for funding consideration. Vice President for Research Dan Jaffe encourages submissions from any area or scholarly endeavor. Nothing is off-limits.

Up to three proposals are selected each spring, and those teams participate in month-long research pop-ups the following year.

“Think of these like intense brainstorming and planning sessions that give researchers across UT Austin the chance to work as a team on topics they want to explore more deeply,” explains Jaffe.

During the pop-up, researchers leave their regular offices and labs behind and work together each day in a common space. They use the time to share ideas and get input from colleagues who come from different fields and areas of expertise. Pop-up teams also invite experts from around the world to come to campus to help the group answer vital questions: What are we overlooking? What haven’t we considered? Are we on the right track? Several expert-led events are open to the public as well.

It’s a month jam-packed with meetings, presentations, and group discussions, but the work doesn’t end there.

“If you’re a researcher who wants to explore something new or work with people in different departments, you need two things: time and a framework in which to spend it with colleagues you don’t otherwise see. That’s why we created Pop-Up Institutes,” says Jaffe. “It’s a way for the university to offer some financial and administrative support so that new and exciting research projects have a chance to get off the ground, but they’re faster, easier, and cheaper to set up than creating a permanent research center on campus.”

Armed with information and a plan, teams continue working together after the pop-ups come to a close. Their goals can range from outlining one specific short-term project they want to tackle all the way up to laying the groundwork for a new curriculum or longer research partnership.

This year, themes around youth substance addiction, humanistic approaches to medicine, and life in outer space made the final cut.

Youth Substance Misuse and Addiction: April 16 – May 15

Lori Holleran Steiker’s work in recovery began long before she arrived on campus. It started when her mother got sober when Steiker was only 10 years old, and it continued when she herself struggled with addiction early in life. Her recovery began the summer after graduating from college and became her motivation to focus on health and recovery on college campuses.

Since coming to UT Austin, Steiker has devoted most of her time to teaching undergraduate clinical and signature courses while also researching and contributing extensively to high schools that cater specifically to teens in recovery. She also helped organize Operation Naloxone, which provides overdose prevention and response training to health professionals and students.

But this past year, Steiker has been focusing much of her attention preparing for the Youth Substance Misuse and Addiction Pop-Up Institute. Her team includes dozens of experts from UT Austin and around the country, such as Michael Botticelli, who served as the director of National Drug Control Policy at the White House under President Obama.

They’re looking to find ways to share data among clinical, community, and rehabilitation organizations so they can work together more effectively, not as isolated groups competing for patients and revenue. They also want to reimagine comprehensive care models that address all aspects of adolescent addiction and relapse — social, emotional, and physiological. At the same time, the Pop-Up Institute will make campus-specific recommendations to address addiction and substance abuse among Longhorn students.

Health and Humanities: May 7 – May 31

“This is really a concentrated effort to learn to speak each other’s languages,” Pauline Strong tells me. Strong is a professor of anthropology and women’s and gender studies.

She and 14 other UT Austin researchers — from medicine and social work to architecture, history, sociology, and more — have spent the past year preparing to launch the Health & Humanities Pop-Up Institute this May.

“The health humanities, as it’s often called, is by definition an interdisciplinary endeavor,” explains Professor Phillip Barrish, whose work explores how medicine and healthcare systems are represented in American fiction. “What most excites me about the upcoming Pop-Up Institute is the opportunity to connect with an even more diverse group of faculty members.”

It is diverse: Half of the pop-up’s participants are from Dell Medical School, and the rest come from eight other schools or colleges on campus. Their goal is to foster strong working relationships among the different disciplines and clinicians, and that begins by understanding how each group thinks and talks about health.

Strong, who’s also the director of the Humanities Institute, explains to me that just in planning for the Pop-Up Institute, she’s already realized that words she and her colleagues use — things like ‘research’ and ‘empathy’ — have very different meanings to clinicians. So the first step will be to develop a common vocabulary.

With that in hand, the team will use their month to plan four types of projects — in research, curriculum, clinical medicine, and community engagement — all of which will help UT Austin researchers bridge the gap between how medical treatments are delivered and how they are received and understood by patients, particularly those in vulnerable communities. More broadly, Pop-Up Institute discussions will also influence how the health humanities is developed at UT Austin.

“What’s it like to be uninsured or undocumented and need healthcare? What’s it like to be a healthcare worker?” asks Clare Callahan, program coordinator for the Humanities Institute.

“For example, one of our projects is to have conversations with people and develop a library of health narratives,” she adds. “By recording people talking about their own illnesses or experiences as caregivers, we hope this will help us learn when care is effective and when it’s not. And we also hope these narratives will help develop more understanding between providers and patients.”

Understanding Planetary Habitability: June 12 – July 26

Is life confined to temperate environments with liquid water, or can it exist — as Assistant Professor Brendan Bowler describes, almost lyrically — within the archipelago of subsurface oceans on the moons of giant planets?

It’s a captivating question, especially when you consider that not long ago, scientists still hadn’t verified the existence of planets beyond our solar system. In the last few decades, however, astronomers have confirmed the existence 3,600 of them — and have also spotted signs of planets in galaxies beyond the Milky Way. What’s more, we now know that Mars at one time had a primitive ocean that held more water than the Arctic.

“We’re at a unique point in history where we’re just beginning to answer questions about the likelihood of habitable worlds and the possibility of life in the universe,” Bowler says.

William Cochran, a research professor at the McDonald Observatory and the Planetary Habitability team leader, tells me that part of the impetus for applying to be one of the Pop-Up Institutes was that nothing else existed on campus for researchers interested in exploring the topic of extraterrestrial life.

“It’s something a lot of us, across many different schools, want to research further, but there isn’t a planetary science department at UT. This gives us the opportunity to work together in a dedicated way that would be difficult otherwise,” Cochran explains.

One of the Pop-Up Institute’s primary goals is to work with experts both within UT and from outside the university — including participants from the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI) and the Carl Sagan Institute — to assess what fraction of known planets might be conducive to life.

“How closer to our sun is the nearest habitable planet?” Cochran muses. “Would it be possible to send an exploratory spacecraft there?”

And is there enough interest in future collaborations at UT to warrant a formal research or academic program in Planetary Science? “My personal goal is to find out,” he insists.

Ready to Go

Meanwhile, Lori Holleran Steiker’s youth substance abuse team — which includes researchers from neuroscience, psychiatry, nursing, communications, public policy, pharmacology and more — is gearing up to kick off the first pop-up on April 16. They’ll be joined by researchers from Harvard University, Vanderbilt University, and the University of Southern California. The month will culminate with an all-day summit, as well as a live-streamed Opioid and Youth Town Hall at Dell Medical School on May 14, followed immediately by a candlelight vigil in memory of those the UT community has lost to addiction.

“We’re trying to redesign the recovery system,” Steiker says, undeterred.

And with that, her whiteboard is finally filled. There are arrows, diagrams, and notes outlining every single group in Central Texas that will contribute to this massive undertaking. Is she overwhelmed, I ask?

“No,” she tells me. “I’m more excited about my work than I’ve ever been.”