A collaborative project at The University of New Mexico will receive part of $17.6 million in grants the Department of Defense is awarding to 27 academic teams under the Defense Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (DEPSCoR). DEPSCoR is a capacity-building program designed to strengthen the basic research infrastructure at institutions of higher education in underutilized states and territories.

The Primary Investigator for the UNM team, which will receive $600,000, is Mubarak Hussain Syed, assistant professor of Biology at UNM and head of the Syed Neural Diversity Lab. His mentor and collaborator on the project is Francesco Sorrentino, a professor in the UNM Department of Mechanical Engineering, who specializes in Control Theory and Machine Learning.

The UNM team’s project is titled Building Intelligent Systems Using Fruit Fly Navigational Neural Networks.

“We will use these funds for our collaborative studies that aim to build insect-inspired neuromorphic computing and intelligent machines using information from the fruit fly central complex circuits,” Syed explained. “With all the neurons mapped and genetic tools available, the fruit fly provides an excellent model system to advance basic research relevant to the mission of many funding agencies, including the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Defense.”

This grant will also provide resources to train students at the interface of biology and engineering.

“This DEPSCoR grant is significant for our new research interests in the lab.  This grant will also provide new avenues of learning for me and my students, and over the next few years, it will prepare us to continue working with the funding agency,” Syed said. 

“This is a truly interdisciplinary effort, where biology and engineering meet to advance fundamental science and applications,” Sorrentino said.

“This is a new direction for our research program,” Syed added. “We are excited to utilize the power of genetics, development, and organizing principles of the fruit fly neural circuit to make more efficient computing machines and to advance artificial intelligence. Additionally, this grant will help us train the next-generation scientists with interdisciplinary skills and expertise.”

"The Department of Defense's science and technology mission relies on an ecosystem of creative and insightful researchers in every state," said Bindu Nair, director of DoD's Basic Research Office. "DEPSCoR aims to increase the number of academics pursing research in DoD-relevant areas, while enhancing the science and engineering capacity of their institutions into the long term.

"It is crucial that we build a Department of Defense research infrastructure that strategically uses the research capabilities found across the country."

The awards follow two Fiscal Year (FY) 2023 competitions – the DEPSCoR Research Collaboration competition and the DEPSCoR Capacity Building competition.

The DEPSCoR Research Collaboration competition is open to tenured and tenure-track faculty members with appointments in the 37 states and territories eligible to compete for DEPSCoR funds. This competition helps introduce potential researchers to DoD's unique research needs and its supporting research ecosystem. Each collaborative team pairs a principal investigator new to the DoD research enterprise with a mentor who has previously worked with the department.

DoD received more than 80 white papers for the FY 2023 Research Collaboration competition, from which subject matter experts in the Military Services selected the final 25 collaborative teams. Principal investigators from universities in Alabama, Arizona, Connecticut, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, Rhode Island, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Wisconsin will lead these teams. Each team will receive up to $600,000 over a three-year period of performance to pursue science and engineering research relevant to DoD.

Image: Francesco Sorrentino, professor of Mechanical Engineering, left, and Mubarak Hussain Syed, assistant professor of Biology and Primary Investigator for the UNM team.