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University: UL pushes to join elite club

Megan Wyatt, The Advertiser, September 21, 2014


Will Bass, a senior computer science major at UL, demonstrates a graphing application that simulates hand gestures in real time using a Creative Senz3D depth camera coupled with an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset Wednesday, September 17, 2014, at the UL Virtual Reality Lab in Oliver Hall.(Photo: Leslie Westbrook, The Advertiser)

University of Louisiana at Lafayette administration announced this week a set of new research policy incentives aimed at driving faculty and student research activity in a way that could change the university’s Carnegie classification.

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching currently classifies UL as a research university with a high level of activity, or a tier two research university.

UL’s administration has set a goal to upgrade that classification to “very high” research activity by 2020. That would place UL in the same tier as Louisiana State University, Tulane University and the Ivy League.

“We deserve to be a part of that club because of the kind of research we have on our campus,” said Ramesh Kolluru, UL’s vice president of research. “And we’re creating a culture that wants to promote research and scholarship and is providing the right kinds of incentives. It’s a win-win.”

University faculty members are off to a great start this academic year after earning a much larger number of federal grants than usual, most of which came from the National Science Foundation. NSF grants are prestigious and are often used to judge the level of research being done at a university, Kolluru says.

“It’s so exciting to me because it is so aligned with what we want to do with our research program,” he said. “Every day I walk into my office and those numbers on the whiteboard are truly what our research goals are.”

The annual research goals on Kolluru’s office wall include bringing $100 million in research money into the university, producing 100 doctoral graduates and supporting 10 new spin-off or start-up companies.

To achieve those goals, university administration recently changed the research policy from a university-centered one to a student-and-faculty-centered one. Kolluru says the old policy scared students and faculty from sharing ideas out of fear that the university would steal them.

“Basically, they said, ‘We think the university is going to grab every good idea we have, even if we don’t think of it in the classroom or the lab. We might be drinking beer with a buddy in a bar, and we have an idea for something — we think the university is going to grab it,’” Kolluru said.

“We came out with a policy of intellectual property ownership that I think is one of the most faculty- and student-friendly policies in the state. We removed the shackles and the language associated with the old one, and it’s been night and day, the kinds of change in perception that we’ve seen.”

Other administrative changes have started to pay off, Kolluru said. Last academic year the research office grew from two employees to four employees, whose job duties include helping faculty develop and grow ideas and collaborate with others in the university.

Christoph Borst, an associate professor in the Center for Advanced Computer Studies, recently earned a National Science Foundation grant for nearly $300,000 to combine high-performance networks and emerging affordable virtual reality devices to improve STEM education through a remotely-guided classroom.

“We want students at local high schools to be able to connect with the system at their schools in their environment,” Borst said. “We have a tentative agreement with the David Thibodaux STEM Academy.”

The collaborative project will include a team of two professors, two graduate students, a research scientist and a software developer.

Will Bass, a senior computer science major at UL, is working alongside Borst on the project and says the research could encourage more high school students to pursue STEM fields.

“Virtual reality is cool,” Bass said. “If you’re in a physics course and you’re learning about energy sources and it’s boring to hear your teacher talk about it, you can put this stuff on and go visit the site and that makes it much more exciting. The technology itself is exciting.”

Research projects such as this one are becoming more common at the university, according to Kolluru.

UL’s five-year strategic research plan will focus on areas of historic excellence at UL that have the most growth potential, Kolluru said. Those areas include life sciences, digital media enterprise software and computing, energy, coastal water management, and advanced materials and manufacturing.

The set of research policy incentives announced this week will encourage strategic research growth through monetary means.

Faculty members whose research grants meet specific goals set by university administration will keep a percentage of the grant money that typically goes back into the university to cover overhead expenses.

“What we’re doing is creating a set of policies, circumstances and incentives that allow them to become more excited,” Kolluru said. “With that and the fact that we have extremely talented people at the university, I’m certain we can reach the goals that we’ve set.”

Federal grants awarded to UL faculty members this summer

$1,193,309 – Peter Sheppard, Curriculum and Instruction, Strengthening teacher education through mathematics and science teaching scholars in Louisiana.

$499,998 – Raju Gottumukkala, Center for Visual and Decision Informatics, A distributed visual analytics sandbox for high volume data streams.

$491,513 – Ben Blundell, Information Technology, Cyber-infrastructure – Creation of science DMZ at UL.

$483,914 – David Borrok, Geosciences, A surface water management framework to counterbalance groundwater withdrawals in wetter regions of the U.S.

$460,000 – Nian-Feng Tzeng, Center for Advanced Computer Studies, Cooperative memory expansion for networked computing systems via remote direct memory access.

$297,767 – Christoph Borst, Center for Visual and Decision Informatics and the Center for Advanced Computer Studies, Collaborative exploration in networked VR environments and application to remotely guided classroom.

$274,478 – James Albert, Biology, Historical biogeography of freshwater fishes in Central America and the Greater Antilles.

$220,348 – Raju Gottumukkala, Center for Visual and Decision Informatics, A virtual crisis information sharing and situational awareness platform for collaborative disaster response.

$180,832 – Dmitri Perkins, Center for Advanced Computer Studies, Spectrum situational awareness – understanding the data.

$180,000 – Fei Xue, Mathematics, Fast algorithms for large-scale nonlinear algebraic eigen problems.

$142,000 – Paul Leberg, Biology, Elucidating mechanisms, documenting patterns and forecasting.

$75,000 – Paul Leberg, Biology, Evaluation of maximum entropy models for assessing the restoration and scenarios influence on coastal wildlife populations.

$45,711 – Paul Leberg, Biology, Modeling tools to predict the effects of coastal protection and restoration projects