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Cluster Hires and Grand Challenges

Idea Generators. Problem Solvers. Leaders.

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These traits have long been facets of the Volunteer difference, and this fall we’re launching a new effort to capitalize on our strengths while helping our community, state, and nation.

We’re planning to make a series of cluster hires that will allow us to build upon our existing and emerging expertise in order to make a real difference in people’s lives. We’ll be looking for help from you as we embark upon this process.

We are fortunate to have a longstanding partnership with Oak Ridge National Laboratory that brings together great minds and superior technology. Our collective work solves problems, cures illness, devises better transportation solutions and manufacturing methods, and discovers more sustainable and efficient energy sources, among many other advancements.

In collaboration with ORNL, we will make our first cluster hire in data sciences, an area that touches almost every discipline in some way.

Interim Vice Chancellor for Research Robert Nobles and I have appointed a task force to study our campus’s existing strengths in data sciences, identify areas where new experts and accelerated research will have greatest impact, and review proposals for the data cluster.

The task force’s recommendations and review of proposals will guide us in hiring six new faculty members to be part of an interdisciplinary data sciences team. The task force will begin reviewing proposals on December 11.

At the same time, we want to enlist your help to identify areas where the university is best positioned to contribute to the common good or help to solve “grand challenges.” Please complete this survey by noon November 6 to share your ideas. The survey should take approximately 10 minutes to complete.

We’ve also scheduled two town hall sessions where you can learn more about this initiative and contribute to campus-wide discussions about the cluster initiative. Sessions will be held at 2 p.m. on November 2 in the Scripps Convergence Lab on the fourth floor of the Communications Building and at 10 a.m. on November 3 in Room A004 of Blount Hall.

I want to assure you that this new initiative will constitute only one aspect of a diverse strategy for hiring faculty to fulfill our mission as the state’s public flagship research and land-grant institution. We need your help to identify and build upon our strengths.

Cluster Hires

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A cluster hire is the addition of faculty with a specific area of expertise in order to develop excellence and build bridges between departments, schools, and colleges.

New cluster faculty strengthen existing research areas and, in some cases, develop new areas. They are change makers—established or emerging experts who can partner with our existing researchers to attract significant external research funding and bolster the university’s reputation as a leader in a specific area.

For example, the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS), which is based on our campus, is a type of faculty cluster. NIMBioS involves an interdisciplinary set of faculty researchers whose groundbreaking work at the intersection of mathematics and biology sheds new light on biological quandaries—from plant diseases that threaten global food security to the reasons people are willing to fight and die for others. Sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the center has raised UT’s international research profile through the extraordinary work of our existing faculty and students as well as faculty, students, and other researchers from universities and organizations around the world.

In building our first cluster, we’ll partner with ORNL and focus on a core shared strength. Home to one of the world’s fastest computers, ORNL is a leader in data-driven research. We also have many different types of data experts on our campus, from big data and data analytics experts in the Haslam College of Business and the Tickle College of Engineering to our highly ranked School of Information Sciences, among other areas.

With recommendations from the task force, we will review our existing data science work to determine where we should add expertise to form an interdisciplinary team.

Our goal is to hire six new faculty members for our data sciences cluster. To do this, we’ll use a combination of new and existing resources, including reassigning existing vacant faculty lines.

Task Force

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Our newly formed task force is charged with doing the initial heavy lifting—studying the data science work being done campus-wide and at ORNL to determine what expertise is needed to round out a team to address pressing issues of the day.

The task force is composed of faculty members and ORNL experts from a wide variety of fields who have a strong track record of externally funded interdisciplinary research. Chaired by Bruce LaMattina, associate vice chancellor for research development, the task force includes:

  • Suzie Allard, associate dean for research in the College of Communication and Information; professor of information science; director of the Center for Information and Communication Studies
  • Louis Gross, Distinguished Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Mathematics; NIMBioS director; director of the Institute for Environmental Modeling
  • Matt Murray, Ball Corporation Professor of Business; director of the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy; associate director of the Boyd Center for Business And Economic Research
  • Lynne Parker, associate dean for faculty affairs and engagement in the Tickle College of Engineering; professor of electrical engineering and computer science
  • Clayton Webster, UT-ORNL Distinguished Scientist; professor of mathematics; ORNL department head of computational and applied mathematics
  • David White, associate dean for research and associate director of the Tennessee Agricultural Experiment Station (AgResearch); professor of food science
  • Sean Willems, Haslam Chair in Supply Chain Analytics; professor of business analytics and statistics.
  • Russell Zaretzki, Joe Johnson Faculty Research Fellow; Heath Faculty Fellow; George and Margaret Melton Scholar in Business Analytics; associate professor of business analytics and statistics; director of the UT-ORNL data science and engineering doctoral program

Grand Challenges

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Moving forward, we want to pinpoint a handful of “grand challenges” where we can make a real and lasting impact.

We want to think big and in broad terms by considering issues such as the opioid crisis, urban futures, water resources, national security, health disparities, terrorism, education, etc.

There are many options, but we have to be strategic about where to focus our efforts. We want to build on our existing strengths to develop a research enterprise that helps to fill an unmet research need in a particular field. We must be forward-thinking in order to take a leading role in meeting specific grand challenges.

By identifying grand challenges to address, we aim to harness the collective strength of our university. We aim to bring scholars and researchers from different units into collaboration In order to fulfill the chancellor’s challenge that we make UT into a national and international leader in defined and important research areas.

To provide input, complete the survey and plan to attend one of the town hall discussion sessions. Additional workshops will be scheduled to discuss ideas received through these initial efforts.

Once we’ve determined our grand challenges, we will be sending information out about how faculty can make proposals that respond to those challenges.