research collaboration mirc

Working across disciplines, university researchers pursue fresh perspectives

Heather Heckman, Beth Bilderback, Fabio Matta, Paul Ziehl work to protect university's extensive film collection

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and two heads are better than one. The clichés apply in a lot of arenas, but they ring particularly true in research, which is seldom a solo endeavor. Perhaps no one on campus knows that better than Prakash Nagarkatti, the University of South Carolina’s vice president for research.

When Nagarkatti became vice president for research in 2011, he encouraged faculty members to focus on challenges unique to the Palmetto State and assemble university-wide teams to solve the problems. 

To incentivize a transdisciplinary approach, Nagarkatti’s office established the ASPIRE II grant program, which offers internal grant funding of up to $100,000 for research proposals that include faculty members from three or more disciplines. In the eight years since the program launched, it has become quite popular, with some 50 proposals submitted every year, each one listing about five faculty members who want to collaborate. Together, the proposals represent about one-fourth of the university’s tenured and tenure-track faculty.

Since 2012, the Office of the Vice President for Research has invested $16.1 million in ASPIRE awards for faculty and postdoctoral scholars. In the same time period, ASPIRE recipients have garnered more than $171.2 million in subsequent extramural funding, including $71.8 million directly attributable to groundwork laid with an ASPIRE award.

Up from the bunker

At more than 20,000 reels, the Fox Movietone News film archive is the crown jewel of the university’s Moving Image Research Collections (MIRC). But the roughly 7 million linear feet of film is both a priceless asset and a potentially expensive liability — because much of the archive consists of highly combustible cellulose nitrate film.

As a result, MIRC has been storing the collection off-site for years in World War II-era bunkers at Fort Jackson. That was the case when Heather Heckman was director of MIRC, and it’s still the case now that she is associate dean for technology at University Libraries.

“This was actually kind of common. Many archives had similar arrangements at one time,” says Heckman. “Today, I think we may be the only archive still storing this kind of material on a military base.”

But while MIRC enjoys a good relationship with the local U.S. Army base, technically, according to the lease agreement, they could be asked to relocate the materials at any time, without advance notice. And even if they were able to keep the materials on-base indefinitely, it’s not an ideal arrangement.

To understand that what you do could have real implications, could have a real impact — that’s exciting.

Fabio Matta, civil and environmental engineering professor

“The munitions bunkers are in a relatively remote location, they are designed to hold volatile material, and the risk to human life should something happen to one of those bunkers is very small,” Heckman explains. “The risk, really, is to the collections.”

That’s due not just to the volatility of cellulose nitrate film, which can auto-combust at temperatures as low as 104 degrees Fahrenheit, but because the facility wasn’t constructed to contain the spread of fire.

“For one thing, our vaults do not have cubbies,” says Heckman. “If we had a fire, we could lose half the collection — and that’s if the fire didn’t also spread to the adjacent vault.”

But building a new vault that meets NFPA 40 (the National Fire and Protection Association’s standard for storage and handling of cellulose nitrate motion picture film) can be costly. In 2016, for example, philanthropist David W. Packard financed an impressive, state-of-the-art film archive at UCLA — at a price tag of roughly $180 million. MIRC needs something considerably less expensive. 

Enter Fabio Matta, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Paul Ziehl, a professor in the same department. In 2017, when Heckman was still director of MIRC, she reached out to see if they could help figure out a creative and affordable solution.

“I literally went to the civil engineering website and started reading what people there specialize in and cold emailed them,” she says.

Like any good civil engineers, they were intrigued by the problem, which built on research they were already doing but which posed a distinct set of challenges.

“Paul and I have a good knowledge of cutting edge materials and more traditional materials, and of structural systems. We wanted to put this experience to work,” says Matta. “We are engineers. We get excited about the idea of building something, or figuring out something that can be built and that can serve a real purpose.”

Heckman also reached out to Beth Bilderback, a visual materials archivist at South Caroliniana Library, which houses cellulose nitrate photography negatives. South Caroliniana’s holdings are smaller and the stakes are a bit lower than at MIRC, but there is still risk.

“It’s still volatile,” says Bilderback. “Standard practice is to separate the negatives from the photographs, but if the negatives do catch fire, it’s going to burn everything.”

Heckman and Bilderback, in collaboration with Matta and Ziehl, applied for and received an ASPIRE II grant in 2017. Current MIRC director Lydia Pappas and MIRC newsfilm curator Greg Wilsbacher, while not officially on the grant as co-investigators, also have an interest in the project. On their end, Matta and Ziehl recruited a student, David Bianco, to conduct the preliminary research.

“The more David looked into this problem, the more passionate he became,” says Matta. “To understand that what you do could have real implications, could have a real impact — that’s exciting. He really worked hard nailing down this set of criteria, looking through the literature: What is the state of the art? Where are we in terms of materials? As far as technical practice?”

The next step, according to Matta, is to prioritize the criteria identified by Bianco, develop a potential engineering solution catered to the specific needs of MIRC and South Caroliniana but that could potentially benefit other archives as well.

“These conversations we’re having are quite hopeful — to see through this process that there might be a possibility of building something that can be scaled to whatever the need is,” says Bilderback. “I know from talking to my colleagues at other institutions, there are a lot of archives with a need but without a huge budget.”

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