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Office of Research & Economic Development

Faculty Retreats highlights

Faculty retreats focus on energy, diversity

University of Nebraska-Lincoln faculty recently brainstormed ideas and strategies for collaborative energy sciences research and attracting diverse graduate students during interdisciplinary faculty retreats.

About 200 faculty attended one or both days of the second annual Interdisciplinary Faculty Retreats May 15-16 in Nebraska City. Each day opened with speakers who outlined successes and challenges before participants broke into working groups to discuss ideas and strategies for energy research and recruitment of underrepresented minority graduate students.

Energy sciences
Ken Cassman, professor of agronomy and horticulture and director of the new Nebraska Center for Energy Sciences Research at UNL, said working across disciplines is a natural for energy science research.

"We already have people doing great work but we need to think about how to collaborate in interdisciplinary ways," he said. Interdisciplinary work in energy science "is the right thing to do for the economic development of the state."

John McClure, Nebraska Public Power District vice president for government and public affairs, outlined energy-related challenges and opportunities to open the energy sciences retreat.

In Nebraska, there is "a natural interrelationship between agriculture, water and energy," he said. The ethanol boom is a prime example.

The ethanol industry's rapid expansion is having a profound influence on Nebraska, he said. "I cannot think of any other issue that has so transformed rural Nebraska in terms of capital investment and new jobs."

It also is driving growing energy demand to power both irrigation and ethanol plants. "By 2014, we predict that one-third of NPPD's electrical demand will be for irrigation and ethanol production."

Curbing greenhouse gas emissions will take decades, he said.

In 2006, NPPD and UNL partnered to establish the Nebraska Center for Energy Sciences Research. McClure said these sorts of "unique and exciting" partnerships will be increasingly important for solving current and future energy challenges.

"In a carbon-constrained world, we need significant technical advances," he said. Major breakthroughs would be great but incremental improvements are essential.

"The cost of energy will likely be escalating for many years. Bottom line, there is no silver bullet."

Interdisciplinarity important
Prem S. Paul, Vice chancellor for research and economic development, said UNL must broadly encourage interdisciplinary research to be competitive and to help solve today's major issues.

Nebraskans, by nature, tend to be humble and reluctant to brag about their accomplishments, Paul said, but UNL can't be shy about promoting its accomplishments. UNL can learn from universities that have built cultures of collaboration and risk taking.

"We can learn from others but eventually we need solutions that make sense for us in Nebraska," he said.

He urged faculty and administrators to work together to encourage interdisciplinary research.

"We need a team approach with bottom-up leadership from the faculty as well as top-down leadership from the administration," he said. Vision and ideas must come from the faculty while administrators need to help eliminate barriers to interdisciplinarity.

Recruiting minority graduate students
David Manderscheid, chair and professor of mathematics at the University of Iowa, outlined his department's efforts to recruit more minority graduate students. Minority graduate student enrollment in his department increased significantly thanks to concerted efforts.

He said there are examples of success in recruiting diverse graduate students around the country and there are some low- or no-cost ways to bolster recruitment. "Models exist but it's about doing things differently."

Among his recommendations:
  • Attract new talent when recruiting students. Recruit people who weren't planning to go to graduate school; recruit at schools where you may not traditionally have looked for students.
  • Build and foster community. Academics often are not the main reason minority students leave a graduate program. They need a sense of community and support.
  • Institutionalize your efforts: Don't depend on just a few people; work to change culture.
  • Expand efforts beyond your area or department. Help others do what you've done.
"Recruiting underrepresented graduate students is about making your program better and increasing the intellectual capacity of the United States," he said. "If we can do it in Iowa, you can do it too."