Q&A: New VP for Research Seeks to Be Facilitator-in-Chief

New Vice President for Research Melur K. “Ram” Ramasubramanian has spent much of his career promoting multidisciplinary research.

The University of Virginia’s new Vice President for Research, Melur K. “Ram” Ramasubramanian, arrived on Grounds Aug. 1 from the National Science Foundation, prepared to lead UVA’s research enterprise to new heights for the coming decades.

He previously directed the NSF’s Engineering Research Centers program, a large, center-level funding mechanism for big-concept, multidisciplinary and multi-institutional research. Additionally, he was the program director for the foundation’s Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship program.

His own research interests are highly interdisciplinary, at the interface of engineering, biology, physical sciences and medicine. He spent the majority of his faculty career in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at North Carolina State University; at Clemson University, he was D.W. Reynolds Distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering, chaired the department and was a professor of bioengineering.

Ramasubramanian has spent a significant portion of his career building research collaborations at both the institutional and national levels through his responsibilities at the NSF. In announcing his appointment last summer, UVA President Teresa A. Sullivan noted that his experience “will prove extremely valuable as Ram creates the collaborative and multidisciplinary framework to further advance UVA’s research productivity.”

Ramasubramanian recently spoke with UVA Today about his plans and goals.

Q. How has your career path prepared you for your new leadership position?

A. Following my Ph.D. degree in mechanical engineering from Syracuse University, I went to work in industry, at what is now Georgia-Pacific, where I had a unique opportunity as a member of a newly formed exploratory research group. The job entailed both carrying out intramural research on topics with near-term impact, as well as managing a pool of funds for supporting basic research at universities as needed to advance long-term, high-risk ideas. I funded and managed multi-year projects at many schools, including the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Washington; Auburn University; and N.C. State University.

That was a valuable experience very early in my career that gave me insight into how research contracts between companies and universities work.

I then moved on to academia as an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at N.C. State University, where I conducted research, wrote multidisciplinary grant proposals, graduated several amazing Ph.D. and M.S. students and published papers in engineering and biomedical journals. Focusing on research, teaching and mentoring students over 18 years at N.C. State University and rising through the ranks all the way to a full professor is the bedrock of my experience that gives me the confidence that I understand the role of a faculty member at a research university, as well as the challenges faced by them, which is essential to my current position.

As I worked with others to build research teams, it became clear to me that I enjoyed collaboration and working on developing large-scale, multidisciplinary and multi-institutional proposals for very competitive agencies like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Institutes of Health and others.

I went to the National Science Foundation as a program director for the [Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship] program, which is NSF’s flagship interdisciplinary doctoral traineeship program. I learned about all the disciplines that NSF supports, their critical questions, culture and measures of success. Projects ranged from nanotechnology to astrobiology, diplomacy, digital humanities, data sciences, resilience and adaptation, and much more. I developed an incredible amount of breadth in understanding diverse disciplines far away from engineering; that turns out to be essential to my current position. Learning something new every day about another discipline was the most rewarding growth experience for me. I not only managed the program, but led the development of a new traineeship program, the [Research Traineeship program], which essentially replaced IGERT.

As a department chair at Clemson, I worked with the administration and donors to secure resources needed for the faculty – especially the new hires – to succeed in their research career. It really is joyful for me to see other people succeed, and to play a role in helping them achieve their goals and dreams.

The new administration at Clemson gave me the honor of chairing the research strategic planning committee for the university. Working with associate deans and faculty representatives from every college at Clemson, I was able to deliver a research strategy component of the strategic plan, known as the ClemsonForward plan. The plan identified areas where the university will make strategic investments to grow research and developed metrics to assess progress. Understanding the institution’s strength and designing an ambitious-but-achievable plan that is strongly supported by faculty is a valuable experience I gained through this exercise.

Finally, I had an incredible second tour of duty at NSF as the program director for the Engineering Research Centers. ERCs are the flagship, center-scale investments that NSF makes. It was an honor to have been part of an entire cycle of award selection for a new class of ERCs and managing several existing centers through site visits to several major institutions. This gave me a privileged front row seat to observe how excellent teams and institutions compete for this most prestigious award from NSF and win.

I believe these experiences have prepared me well for my current role as the vice president for research at UVA to help the institution achieve its ambitious goal of significantly growing research and scholarly productivity over the next decade.

Q. What, in your opinion, has the University done well thus far toward enhancing research activities here?

A. First, I have already witnessed that we have a strong faculty community with an unmistakable energy and motivation to move UVA research from prominence to preeminence by excelling in research and scholarship in their own endeavors, as well as a strong desire to work with others and address large-scale interdisciplinary problems with societal impact.

The provost has already launched the pan-University institute initiative that is highly successful, with two of the centers (Data Sciences Institute and the Brain Institute) receiving significant funding from other sources to sustain their vision. The two new institutes deployed after my arrival, the Environmental Resilience Institute and the Global Infectious Diseases Institute, have created significant enthusiasm among large groups of faculty. These groups are very active in trying to establish themselves and move their research impacts from prominence to preeminence. The pan-University institutes will remain as one of the significant elements of a comprehensive research strategy for research at UVA. I am thankful to Provost Tom Katsouleas for his vision in rolling out this initiative.

The establishment of the Strategic Investment Fund, and several projects funded through SIF supporting research and research infrastructure since September 2016, will have a strong positive influence in moving the research forward.

One of the projects that is already underway and has had an impact in the area of research infrastructure is ResearchUVA. This project aims to modernize the operational aspects of the sponsored program enterprise and prepare the institution for handling the large growth that we are envisioning in the coming years.

The Board of Visitors’ ad hoc committee on research spent significant time and effort last year to develop a work plan for research, which essentially outlines eight topics that need to be systematically addressed to grow our research enterprise. This is essentially a framework of a strategic plan. I am grateful for such an involvement and valuable contribution by the board members, helping me start with the right orientation and clarity of purpose.

Also promising is that our sponsored research funding has grown significantly in the last two years, evidence of the enthusiasm for growth potential here, and that we are on the right track to achieve ambitious funding goals that will allow us to strengthen, blossom and thrive.

The caliber of recently hired faculty at all levels in several schools, starting from assistant professors to distinguished professors, is incredibly impressive and gives me the confidence that the vision of substantially growing our research in the next seven to 10 years is realistic and achievable. That is why I am here.

Q. What can be improved, and how can you help facilitate growth?

A. We intend to move forward through creative strategic thinking as we seek new and broader research opportunities through grants and contracts with government and industry and also through targeted philanthropy. Funding levels with the traditional funding agencies, NIH and NSF, are currently flat, so are essentially declining year-by-year. But we can continue to grow our share of the pie in a tight funding environment by teaming up on the big problems across the spectrum that require a multidisciplinary approach.

And we must scale up our efforts to win funding from a range of sources, such as the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, the Department of Education, foundations and donors.

Finally, communicating the research outcomes and accomplishments of our faculty to target audiences in government, alumni and industry, as well as the public, is important and should be thoughtful and deliberate.

Q. What is your philosophy regarding the importance of research to society generally, and at UVA particularly?

A. UVA has a great history as an institution that creates knowledge, grows it and passes it on to the next generation. The University really plays a pivotal role in improving the lives of people in the commonwealth and the world at large.

Broadly, almost every benefit that people enjoy, from medicine to technologies, infrastructures and public policy, can be traced back to the discoveries and scholarship of free-thinking investigators at research institutions. The work of many Nobel laureates can be traced back to a UVA connection somewhere along the development of their research. The pan-University institutes and numerous research centers at UVA are addressing some of the pressing societal grand challenges; the diabetes institute and the cancer center are two examples.

We prepare the future generations of creative thinkers and discoverers. We build the societal leaders who find, and will continue to find, solutions to our most severe problems. Research builds the future of humanity, and the growth of civilization is intertwined with research and the insights brought forth from our universities.

I love the enthusiasm we have for research at UVA and I am fueled by that enthusiasm. I want to make a major impact here toward helping motivated people excel and be impactful. I feel an enormous responsibility to find ways to support outcomes of excellence, which we all can share and be proud of. It is an honor for me to serve as the vice president for research at UVA.

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