Research universities across the nation continue to innovate across a variety of fields and disciplines. The nature of these problems requires a more exceptional interdisciplinary approach; however, administrators within these higher education institutions struggle to connect professors from different backgrounds to work together. The lack of collaboration between various departments results in critical problems going unsolved. Ansh Bhammar, Yash Jain, Nitin Kumar, and Michael Ashmead are undergraduates at Johns Hopkins University who have faced this issue in their search to work on interdisciplinary research, creating ForagerOne as a result. ForagerOne is a university research network platform allowing students to get connected with faculty researchers.
ForagerOne cofounders from left to right: Michael Ashmead (CPO), Ansh Bhammar (Co-CEO), Yash Jain … [+]
Frederick Daso: You claim that collaboration across the academic research system is “fragmented.” Why is this the case? Couldn’t technology transfer offices help bridge the gap? If not, what’s the most relevant entity within the academic ecosystem at a university that could do so, or is it not possible?
Ansh Bhammar: Traditionally, research at academic institutions was focused within a distinct discipline, such as biology, mathematics, or economics. Today, that’s no longer the case, with the emergence and growth of interdisciplinary fields of study. As a result, students and faculty now seek to interact with individuals beyond their designated department or division, and that can be hard because institutions are decentralized. Departments, divisions, and campuses often act semi-autonomously. There can be very little cross-talk between them. Such institutional and disciplinary boundaries hinder the formation of new collaborations, especially between people who are separated physically and by way of what they study.
Technology transfer offices are primarily concerned with the commercialization of research developments, and themselves suffer from the repercussions of decentralization, as they often aren’t aware of all the relevant “commercializable” research that faculty members across the institution develop. In other words, they have a tough time even with taking inventory.
Daso: What efforts have been tried by university administrators to facilitate interdisciplinary efforts across different departments? Why have they failed?
Bhammar: A few institutions have developed their internal solutions to serve as ‘research job posting sites,’ though building a homegrown platform is both costly and time-intensive. These sites have had limited success in facilitating student-faculty and faculty-faculty interactions, as they require significant input from administrators or from faculty themselves, which dramatically increases the barrier to adoption. More importantly, the approach these sites take does not fundamentally cater to the organic interaction that typically takes place in a collaborative connection. Faculty often do not have pre-existing positions that they are trying to recruit students or collaborators for – projects will often be carved out later, and relationships happen because of shared interests. This concept has been validated through our user activity, as a majority of faculty on ForagerOne are actively involving students and collaborators without having a specific project or position posted.
Daso: How did you arrive at a pricing schedule on the order of tens of thousands of dollars?
Bhammar: Universities are bureaucratic organizations, often with tight budgets and long sales cycles. As a young startup, we’re more focused at this time with reducing sales friction and successfully implementing at institutions to prove the success of our technology and value propositions. We’ve found a price point on the order of tens of thousands for our early adopters to be the sweet spot. Many institutions have started mobilizing task forces and allocating funds towards solving these challenges, but that trend is still relatively new. So, we sell and implement fast, rather than having a long sales cycle and excessive administrative red-tape. Down the road, as our product and market evolve, our pricing model will likely change as well. We also recognize that there is immense value in the unique networks of students and faculty that we will create by implementing at these institutions, which we plan to leverage through other applications, such as in facilitating technology transfer, for instance.
Daso: What are the challenges that students face in reaching out to professors to assist the latter in research? How does ForagerOne solve these problems? What analytics are collected that enable administrators to improve the research outcomes of the university?
Bhammar: From finding the right faculty mentors to connecting with them, students are faced with unnecessary challenges the whole way through. They have to scour the numerous outdated, unstandardized, and incomplete department websites, which make it difficult to understand what faculty are currently working on and if they are open to taking in a student at the time. On top of that, students then have to cold email faculty to get involved, which often results in no response because faculty receive hundreds of emails per day, and they can quickly look over non-urgent student requests. To compound that, at times, students don’t know how to make a compelling case for themselves, and their applications can come across as unworthy of attention. On the other hand, faculty have no systematic way of finding students (who can often be productive and dedicated contributors to their research), especially outside of their departments and circles.
ForagerOne’s novel technology auto-creates a comprehensive database of faculty researchers’ profiles at any given institution. It facilitates connections based on shared interests, creating opportunities for new collaborations and partnerships among students and faculty. We focus on connecting people to breed meaningful relationships rather than facilitating transactional relationships by merely connecting students with ‘research job opportunities.’ Students can search using keywords and filters to find the right faculty mentor for them, and then go through our application workflow, in which they build their profile and write tailored interest statements to connect directly with a faculty researcher. Faculty have to claim their auto-created profile, hit a toggle switch to indicate if they’re accepting students at this time, and review requests (which contain all the relevant information about each student) to build their research teams.
Our actionable analytics provide administrators with unparalleled insight into the breakdown and demographics of these interactions, where research activity is taking place and where it’s failing, and what the overall strengths and weaknesses of the institution are on research and experiential learning. Specifically, our technology analyzes information to identify which types of students, faculty departments, and disciplines need more targeted efforts to boost student and faculty research. By tracking the efforts of administrators and correlating it with outcomes from student and faculty activity, we can help them determine the most effective strategies to reach the students and faculty they serve. Ultimately, our solution is built to support these academic officials highlight, evaluate, and measure their efforts so they can multiply their impact.
Daso: What key lessons did you learn from your struggles of trying to get involved with undergraduate research at Johns Hopkins?
Bhammar: There’s a ton of incredible research happening at Hopkins, but that also means that it’s difficult to find the right faculty mentor for you. All of us at ForagerOne have gone through the grind, spending countless hours googling faculty and cold emailing them to find potential mentors. Ultimately, we all did have the opportunity to research as undergraduates, and it was a foundational part of our undergraduate careers. Still, the road to get there was anything but straightforward, and it required a crazy amount of luck.
In my case, I had committed to one of the few faculty who got back to me after my extensive outreach. A few days before I was going to start, I came across an article recently published by the university by sheer chance. In essence, it highlighted the efforts of another faculty member in a different department I hadn’t come across who was doing precisely the kind of work I imagined doing. So I apologized to the professor I initially committed to and was fortunate enough to have this new faculty member take me under her wing.
In my co-founder Yash’s case, he had worked in a lab for a semester before he realized that it wasn’t the right fit and decided to leave. The poor match cost both him and his supervisor their investment of time and effort. Yash reached out to more faculty and, through a series of happenstance connections, eventually found himself a fantastic faculty mentor on an entirely different campus.
Our technical co-founders Michael and Nitin, had similar experiences as well. Michael tried to get involved in research even before starting college, and it took him repeated waves of outreach until he got just one positive response. Nitin, a computer science major, by chance, heard about a faculty member working on computational neuroscience research, which was looking for students from a third-degree connection.
Through each of our experiences, we arrived at the same realization: there had to be a better way. And that’s how it all started.
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