Concordia's Thursday Report

Vol. 29, No.1

September 9, 2004


Engineering and fine arts research collaborations sprout from seed grants

By Scott McRae

Walls between disciplines are tumbling down. As the faculties of Engineering and Computer Science and Fine Arts begin preparations to move into the new Integrated Engineering and Computer Science/Visual Arts Complex, the future neighbours are already collaborating on joint research projects, helped along by an infusion of $110,000 in seed grants from both faculties.

The seed grants, announced last spring by ENCS Dean Nabil Esmail and Fine Arts Dean Christopher Jackson as a way to promote interdisciplinary research, received a strong response from the professoriate. Eleven research teams, bringing together 12 Engineering and Computer Science and 12 Fine Arts researchers, received $10,000 each to develop projects ranging from the visualization of fish dynamics to the creation of three-dimensional virtual art objects.

Their response pleases Dean Esmail, who had made several previous attempts to bring together the two entities. “It's like trying to breed two species, and each species is saying, “That’s not right.” It is extremely difficult trying to establish multidisciplinary research in any university in Canada. ”

Concordia, however, is a particularly well suited to such collaborations. Not only does it have two of the leading faculties of fine arts and engineering in Canada, but the faculties have traditionally been close collaborators, explained Dean Esmail. For example, no other Canadian universities offer a program similar to the undergraduate program in Digital Image & Sound.

The seed money will have several uses. The results from the research will be used to build a stronger case in future funding applications to external agencies.

In some cases, where research has already begun, such as Sabine Bergler, Leila Kosseim and PK Langshaw's experiments with a general architecture for multimedia engineering, the grant covers a period between research stages while the team searches for further sources of external funding. Many teams plan to use most of their seed grant money to fund student researchers.

The grants, which are relatively modest sums, are not intended to sustain and sponsor interdisciplinary research, Dean Esmail said. They are, however, intended to jump-start collaborations.

At present, it is uncertain whether the seed grant program will continue in future years. Because of the unexpectedly large number of applicants, the program cost more than double its original budget. A final decision on the program's future will be taken by Deans Esmail and Jackson next May, after a colloquium in which the 11 research teams present their findings and discuss their progress.

Ultimately, the success of the seed money will be measured by whether or not the research groups receive enough external grants to continue their investigations and whether the findings inspire other collaborations.

Already, the joint efforts have pushed the bounds of discipline-specific inquiry. For example, Engineering and Computer Science professors Sudhir Mudur and Thomas Fevens, mathematics professor Fred Szabo, and Fine Arts professors Cheryl Dudek and Lydia Sharman have been attempting to formally model, identify and recreate ancient ornamental patterns of Moroccan Zillij mosaics and African kuba textiles using computer programming.

The need for computer recognition and recreation of patterns has pushed the bounds of current technology, said Dr. Mudur, while the resulting technology will allow arts researchers to both improve research into ancient patterns and to create new works using ancient patterns.

This kind of result should inspire other collaborations, Dean Esmail said. “The success of the Fine Arts and Engineering initiative will not simply be a success for the particular marriage of Fine Arts and Engineering but it will be a success for the idea of multidisciplinary research. ”