The Friday Letter Archive

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Friday Letter 2016-09-09:
Meet Our New Research Leader

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Janet Nelson joined us this month as our new vice president for research and economic development. She was most recently the associate vice chancellor for research development at the University of Tennessee and has more than 30 years of experience in scientific research and administration.

Over the next few weeks she will be touring Idaho to visit agencies, industry partners and UI locations. I interviewed Janet this week to capture firsthand her thoughts on the role of research, on the importance of expert teams, and on moving to Idaho and returning to her roots in the West.

Why did you want to work at the University of Idaho?

Every time I visited the University of Idaho, I became more impressed with the opportunities at the university, the beauty of the region and the warmth of the people. I was actually born in Bozeman, Montana, and I spent many summers at my grandfather’s ranch in Dillon. It is fun to be out West again. The opportunity to join the senior leadership in place here was also a key part of my decision.

How has your experience in science and research administration prepared you for this role?

Like the University of Tennessee, Idaho is a land-grant university and a flagship university. The research and development aspects of this position will be quite similar to what I’ve been doing the past few years at UT. For example, to grow the NIH portfolio, I worked with the faculty to strategically go after NIH funding. I also have extensive history at DOE national labs, from my postdoctoral training at Los Alamos National Laboratory, to five years at the National Energy Technology Laboratory, to fostering partnerships between UT and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. I really enjoy building relationships and helping the academic, government and industry continuum leverage their different research strengths to attack a problem in a common way.

One of UI’s goals, as spelled out in our new Strategic Plan, is to become a Carnegie R1 “Highest Research Activity” institution. What will that take?

I’m very excited about the university’s new strategic plan. It’s very aggressive, but I think it’s achievable. We’re going to have to roll up our sleeves, but a lot of the resources are currently in place. However, we will need improvement in infrastructure, in laboratory space and in cluster hires in areas of expertise. We’re going to have to work at growing different sources of research funding, and not just relying on federal expenditures. One thing to be careful about is that we can’t be the best at everything. We’re going to have to be selective about where we focus.

Why should the general public care about research? What does it mean for an Idahoan?

Research is key to the mission of a land-grant university. I see a tight integration between education, research and economic development. I think research comes down to understanding how things work and then applying that knowledge to address a common problem. People in Idaho, just like people in the rest of the nation and the rest of the world, all have common problems, whether it’s health disparities, energy shortages or food issues. So the research we do at universities, and the work we can take to the next level and commercialize, is important in helping solve and address these challenges.

Your description of research seems to go beyond the laboratory. Do you have a broad definition of research?

Yes. I embrace all research, scholarship and creative activity, and I’m going to make a point to address that intensely. I’m a chemist by training, but I’m very proud of having a BA from a liberal arts college. We have to understand that the standards for excellence for each discipline is different. For instance, a Guggenheim fellowship is as prestigious as an NSF CAREER Award. Part of my responsibility is to celebrate excellence in each of the fields and help all the fields progress.

What themes do you see emerging in research?

One of the things that I’m really passionate about with research is the emerging national theme of multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research. We have a great opportunity at UI to embrace this approach to tackle problems that one discipline alone can’t solve. For example, the food, water, energy nexus is going to bring together many disciplines and require a team effort. I really like team building, and it is important to understand that an expert team is not the same as a team of experts. I want to help build expert teams to help solve important problems.

You brought your family here. How are they feeling about this move?

I have a grown daughter in North Carolina, but I brought my husband and my young daughter here, and they are very excited about the move and we are all enjoying Moscow and the region.

Thank you, Janet, for your time, and welcome again to our national research university. 

Go Vandals!

Chuck Staben