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ISDS Professors Land Rare National Science Foundation Grant

By Keith Morelli

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TAMPA (June 4, 2020) -- An artificial intelligence-based software designed to help PhD students formulate their paths through the rigorous academic programs and subsequent careers is being designed by a group of USF faculty and alumni, including three from the Muma College of Business’ Information Systems and Decision Sciences Department.

The idea struck gold last month when the National Science Foundation awarded $225,000 to the proposal, “EdVision: AI Powered Academic Guidance for PhD Programs.” This funding will help get the design off the ground, said Kaushik Dutta, faculty chair of the ISDS department.

“This is big news,” Dutta said. “There are not many faculty members across the USF System who have received this NSF STTR (Small Business Technology Transfer program) grant to pursue their entrepreneurial efforts. The success rate (for landing the grant) for such proposals from the state of Florida is only about 8 percent.”

Manish Agrawal, a professor in the ISDS Department who is heading up the project, credited the interdisciplinary group of dedicated faculty with making this happen.

“The key was a strong team,” he said, “a strong partnership.”

The Muma College of Business team is working closely with Ruth Bahr, associate dean of the USF Office of Graduate Studies, to build the software.

Matt Mullarkey, instructor in the Muma College of Business ISDS Department, Paul Sanberg, USF vice president for research and Sudeep Sarkar USF associate vice president for research, were pivotal in helping the project move forward, Agrawal said.

Sanberg, Sarkar and Mullarkey run the NSF-funded USF I-Corps site program, Agrawal said, which helps budding entrepreneurs in the Tampa Bay area with customer discovery, improve the fit between the ideas and market needs.

With the support of Muma College of Business Dean Moez Limayem, Agrawal developed his initial idea within the college over the past several years. When Agrawal was ready to take his idea to a wider audience, he explored external funding opportunities. As a pre-cursor to the NSF STTR application, Agrawal participated in the USF I-Corps program in the fall of 2018, with Dutta as his business mentor.

“We met Dr. Bahr as part of that program, and pivoted from our initial idea based on her inputs,” Agrawal said. “She also agreed to partner with us based on our I-Corps work. I don’t think our proposal would have been competitive without that critical participation in the USF I-Corps program.”

The design draws a digital map powered by artificial intelligence that opens insights into the future for PhD students. It will determine trends in academic and employment opportunities years down the road, thereby helping students improve their course selection, research topics and research methods while they are in the program.

Agrawal said the NSF funding will help implement the idea for the startup that one day, hopefully, will serve universities in the United States and around the world.

“We now hope to build something valuable in this space,” Agrawal said, “and do USF and the Muma College of Business proud.”