graphic of molecules in green

Despite hurdles presented by the global pandemic, the University of North Texas had record growth in research productivity last year. Unprecedented gains in new research grants and proposals and overall research expenditures reflect the university’s rise as a major national research university.

The total number of research proposals rose 17% from $213 million in fiscal year 2020 to $251.4 million in fiscal year 2021, which ended Aug. 31. The university secured its highest-ever level of external funding, with a 25% increase from $39.9 million to $50.0 million in sponsored awards.

UNT Vice President for Research and Innovation Mark McLellan said the unparalleled success was a testament to the tenacity and hard work of its research faculty who persevered while managing COVID-19 conditions, including reduced staffing and travel restrictions.

“Despite the hardships of doing research while managing COVID restrictions, our researchers flipped it around for a spectacular win,” McLellan said. “These are astounding numbers that the faculty achieved — double-digit growth in sponsored projects. The faculty did an amazing job during fiscal year 2021.”

UNT first achieved Tier One research university status in 2015 and has continued to grow its research enterprise, focusing on both the breadth and depth of the research portfolio.

“What our researchers accomplished this year is nothing short of astounding. Their activities in research and creative activity, beyond just the numbers, are yet more examples of their dedication to excellence,” McLellan said. “These research and sponsored project investments by federal, state and private foundations indicate confidence in UNT’s talent and mission, and bear witness to our university’s dedication to the advancement of education, knowledge and the well-being of our community and state.”

Restricted research spending, a metric needed to achieved National Research University Fund Status, rose 20% to a record $20.3 million in fiscal year 2021. Research growth is happening across disciplines from engineering to public service. New projects ranged from climate change studies to the use of artificial intelligence to detect bias in student learning.

“If you look inside the system — proposals and the awards are broad,” McLellan said.

“The sheer range of discoveries that our researchers accomplished this year is helping sustain the big challenges our world faces; from racial and ethnic equity to bettering materials for solider protection. I am incredibly proud of the dedication and perseverance our research community has shown, and their positive contributions to our state and world.”

The growth in funding reflects the fact that UNT researchers are addressing the most pressing problems in our world today.

Some notable achievements include:

  • Researchers with the Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Processes Institute received an additional $5.5 million grant from the Army Research Laboratory to devise new materials for making bulletproof protection materials. Rajiv Mishra, director of the institute and UNT Distinguished Research Professor of materials science and engineering, is leading the group in creating and testing new, lighter protection materials that would be able to withstand impacts for a longer time with less damage. The team is working on both metallic materials and ceramic composites. 
  • Ifana Mahbub, assistant professor of electrical engineering, is the first UNT recipient of a prestigious Young Faculty Award from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Mahbub will use the two-year $500,000 award to work on the development of a wireless power transfer network of unmanned aircraft systems that would allow drones to be charged wirelessly in the field by other drones. The objective of the prestigious award program is to identify and engage rising research stars with the long-term goal of developing the next generation of academic scientists and engineers to focus a portion of their career on Department of Defense and national security issues.
  • Lu Liang and Alexandra Ponette-González, assistant professors in the Department of Geography and the Environment, recently received a $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to test whether there is a correlation between heat and air pollution in urban areas by deploying a low-cost sensor network of small air quality sensors in volunteers’ homes, businesses or schools. Some of the sensors will also provide data for a project with the city of Lewisville to create a new park in support of the city’s initiative to ensure every resident has a park within a 10-minute walk of where they live.

Read more about some of the research supported by external funding in fiscal year 2021.