Creating Across the Interfaces: VP for Research Works to Galvanize Connections

October 26, 2009 — Fourteen months into his term as the University of Virginia's vice president for research, Tom Skalak's vision can be summed up as this: "To harness the research and scholarly activity at the University that occurs at interfaces and find new applications."

And that work, he says, benefits not only the University, but most importantly, society.

"Creative human expression in our fields – the arts and humanities, science and technology and health – is our greatest strength," he said. "We can be even stronger by better integrating the domains."

As a biomedical engineer, Skalak has built his career making discoveries at the interfaces of science, technology and medicine, working with a diverse group of researchers to gain new insights for solving complex problems involving human health.

As vice president for research, he is working to bring together creators of knowledge across the disciplines to find new ways to solve old and new problems.

"To me, a poet adding lines to a page, a painter putting color to the canvas, is much the same as a scientist thinking through a problem toward discovery," he said. "These are creative endeavors that bring new and better ideas to the world. As a University, we can bring these ideas and their creators together for something even bigger."

He cites as an example, the U.Va. Bay Game, the creation of a diverse group of faculty and students. The "game" is an interactive computer model of the six-state Chesapeake Bay watershed that allows participants to take on the roles of watershed and Bay stakeholders and policymakers. Each participant's actions and decisions influence the outcome for every other participant, whether a crabber or a farmer or a company or a community.

"We brought together people from across Grounds – faculty and students – to create the first-ever interactive model of a major ecosystem that factors in the effects of human decisions," Skalak said.

"The results are so profound, we are getting inquiries from universities and governments in other regions where people would like to develop interactive models for other sensitive ecosystems."

Skalak said the U.Va. Bay Game is a highly distinguishing effort for the University that demonstrates how creative minds from across the disciplines can address big, complex societal issues and problems.

"This is the type of cultural change at the University that our office is not only encouraging, but also working vigorously to catalyze," he said.

Another initiative of Skalak's office is the Science and Arts Project, which seeks to "celebrate and inculcate the habit of creativity" across domains like the performing and visual arts, with engineering and other professional practices including commerce, business and medicine. The effort is promoting alliances among artists, scientists and visionaries.

"At our kickoff event last year, about 200 people came from across Grounds and felt they were free, in a sense, to explore across interfaces instead of just working within the parameters of their everyday disciplines," Skalak said. "And we continue to have enormous interest and participation in this growing endeavor."

One outcome, a new event in the design stages, is a "Phillips Collection-U.Va. Art & Innovation Design Gathering" which will unite U.Va. participants with people and activities at the renowned Washington, D.C. modern art collection, to pursue a vision for stimulating innovation through art and science interactions.

Skalak foresees that increased participation in this project could distinguish the University and Charlottesville as a center of creativity for the merging of art and science.

"We are really doing a better job than ever of connecting students and faculty across units and encouraging the freedom to experiment and innovate and to be rewarded for exploring across the boundaries," Skalak said.

His office also oversees research funding and works with faculty and students to create research proposals that generate funding. As a result, U.Va. secures $300 million to $325 million in federal research money in a given year.

And since February when Congress designated $21.5 billion in stimulus spending for research and development, U.Va. researchers have, to date, secured $56.8 million in stimulus funding for projects across the research spectrum, from medicine to nursing, astronomy to physics, engineering to education, biology and beyond.

In Skalak's efforts to bring creators of knowledge together, his office sponsored in April the first U.Va. Venture Summit, which brought U.Va. thought leaders on key topics together with potential investors from top venture capital firms across the nation, representing more than $10 billion under active management.

"This provided truly fascinating discussions between our researchers and inventors and potentially interested investors," Skalak said. "And we had a larger goal, which was to expose business leaders to a window on the future regarding pressing societal needs.

"We looked at areas like personalized medicine and microelectronics and alternative energy from a multi-disciplinary view, and gave some perspective of where those fields are going in five or 10 or 20 years. Some of these business leaders told us this was the best such event they'd ever participated in."

Skalak plans to sponsor a venture summit every year, the next one being March 25-26, 2010.

Skalak's office also is leading "V-RISE – Virginia-Research, Innovation, Science, Engineering" – an all-University planning group focused on science, engineering and related research. The goal is to build a pan-university vision for U.Va.'s research enterprise, with full input from stakeholders across Grounds.

"The University's long-term investment in the core sciences, in the arts and humanities, in engineering and medicine and health, is a powerful force for creating positive societal change in Virginia and for the national and global economy," Skalak said.

"Universities are particularly well-positioned to truly innovate for the betterment of society. Corporations won't do it alone, governments and nongovernmental organizations can facilitate, but universities, with our diverse array of creative thinkers and problem-solvers, are the centers of discovery and innovation where exciting new things actually happen and are carried forward into society.

"At U.Va., we are capable of achievements far beyond what we already have achieved, and we can distinguish ourselves further by talking to each other and working on the biggest problems at their interfaces."

— By Fariss Samarrai