Motivate November 2017

UF Joins The Top Ten


Written By: Chris Eversole

David Norton, the University of Florida’s vice president for research, carefully measures his words, in keeping with scholarly background as a materials engineer.

But he’s exuberant – in a measured way – about UF reaching its long-sought goal of breaking into the top 10 in the U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges.

The ranking of No. 9 by the magazine, released in mid-September, is the most significant honor UF has ever received, he said.

“We have been recognized as among the best in the nation in many other ways, but the U.S. News ranking is the one that people pay the most attention to,” Norton said.

“Companies that want to hire students from a Top 10 university will notice. Outstanding students from Florida who want to go to a Top 10 school will consider us,” he stated.

The U.S. News recognition is the payoff of UF Preeminence, an initiative that began in 2013 when the Florida Legislature designated UF, along with Florida State University, as the state’s preeminent universities.

The Legislature, with the strong support of Gov. Rick Scott, has invested heavily since then – supplement money to enhance teaching, research and service.

Private donors also have stepped up. UF announced in August that private giving for the past year reached nearly half a billion dollars – $449 million.

“Alumni and friends have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in named professorships and chairs, along with scholarships and money for buildings,” said Provost Joe Glover.

As part of the Preeminence Plan, UF has hired 100 distinguished faculty members from top universities, nationally and internationally.

“They’re tackling some of the toughest problems facing the state, the nation and the world,” Norton said.

The new researchers are furthering UF’s already strong role in getting its ideas out of the laboratory and into the real world. UF’s success in commercializing its discoveries was highlighted in April of this year, when the Milken Institute ranked UF as third on its list of Best Universities for Technology Transfer.

“Our top-ranked tech transfer operation is driving economic development and cycling royalty dollars back into research,” Norton said.

Bolstering Teaching

While infusing new blood into the research faculty is important, so is improving the student-teacher ratio, reducing class size and providing more research opportunities for undergraduates, said Provost Glover.

With that in mind, UF is hiring 200 “junior” faculty, whose salaries are lower than those of seasoned faculty. “We can have a greater impact on the classroom by adding junior faculty,” he stated.

One-third of the new teaching faculty started this fall, primarily “lecturers,” who are having an immediate impact in reducing class size, Glover said.

A new program in the Department of Mathematics demonstrates what’s being done with additional teachers.

“We’ve added eight faculty members in developing an approach that’s revolutionizing the way we teach calculus,” he said. “It will be a very different experience, and we expect a much higher number of students will be successful.”

The Preeminence Plan is helping UF graduate more top students, including ones with master’s degrees and doctorates, Glover added. “We’re providing a steady stream of intellectual capital to businesses in the state,” he said.

When Northrop Grumman was considering expanding its presence in Florida, Glover and other people from UF met with company officials. “We assured them that we could provide the intellectual capita and cutting-edge research and engineering expertise they needed,” he said.

This helped convince Northrop Grumman in 2016 to expand its campus at Orlando Melbourne International Airport, creating space for 1,900 new employees to help design and manufacture the Air Force’s Long Range Strike Bomber.

UF representatives also helped recruit Mindtree, a software company that had most of its employees in India, to Gainesville. “We let them know that we had the talent pipeline they needed,” Glover said.

Malaria Eradication

Dinglasan discovered a vaccine against malaria, and he was proceeding on the long path to improve it and bring it to market as an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

UF came calling, recruiting him to join its Preeminence Program. “I thought of Florida as a football school,” he said. “At first, it was hard to gauge its commitment to academic excellence, and I was hesitant to uproot my program.”

What motivated him to hear UF’s pitch was the growth opportunities it offered. “At Johns Hopkins, junior faculty have to wait a long time to become leaders,” he said. “I didn’t want to wait my turn.”

During multiple recruitment visits, Dinglasan discovered that UF’s drive for excellence equaled that of Johns Hopkins, which has a long history as a top research university.

“Until I came down, I didn’t fully recognize UF’s aspiration for improvement, that it is always trying to become better, but in fact UF already had a lot to offer,” he said. “I felt a Major League team was recruiting me as a free agent. They wanted me to bring something to their game.”

UF promised collaboration. “At a lot of places, collaboration is just talk,” Dinglasan said. “At UF, I work closely with administrators at all levels.”

He is collaborating across the state. Working with researchers at the University of Miami, Florida International University and the University of South Florida, he spearheaded efforts that won a $10 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for a research program focused on stopping diseases such as Zika before they spread farther into the United States.

“This collaboration on a cross-university program of this magnitude is valuable to the entire state,” Dinglasan said.

UF’s football tradition actually played a role in attracting Dinglasan. His wife, Patricia Strickler-Dinglasan grew up in Orlando. “She grew up going to Gator games,” he said. “This move is about finding that research-life balance in a collegial town with a strong research university and a wonderful place to raise your kids.”

Helping Children and Families

Conroy holds two titles in the Anita Zucker Center for Excellence in Early Childhood Studies. She’s the co-director of the center, and she holds the Anita Zucker Endowed Professor in Early Childhood Studies.

Zucker, a UF alumnus and former school teacher, helped endow both the center and the professorship.

“We’re incredibly grateful to her devotion to helping all young children develop to their full potential,” Conroy said.

“The targeted dollars she provided are making a big difference in advancing our work in the center and the field.”

The Anita Zucker Center is housed in the College of Education, but it takes a broad approach to everything it does.

On campus, that means working with researchers from multiple colleges, including the colleges of law, medicine, nursing, liberal arts and sciences and public health and health professions.

“Our transdisciplinary approach allows us to create new ideas and approaches to helping support children in their early years, which are crucial to maximizing their current and future development,” Conroy said.

The Anita Zucker Center, along with colleges across campus, convened UF’s Early Childhood National Summit, held in Orlando in February.

“People from all over the country worked together – across disciplines – on new ways to address the needs of young children and their families and to advocate for more advances in policy and program,” Conroy said.

“We know what works to support young children and their families in their early years, but we need new ways to ensure supports can be implemented successfully in all communities so that every child and family can benefit.”

Conroy credits for David Lawrence, chair of the Children’s Movement of Florida, a UF alumnus and former publisher of the Miami Herald, with starting the work that led to creation of the Anita Zucker Center.

He created the David Lawrence Jr. Endowed Chair in Early Childhood Studies, which is held by Patricia Snyder (who is director of the Anita Zucker Center).

“He planted the seed that got the work of the center started,” Conroy said. “Now our endowments have reached $12.5 million and over $23 million in research funding from federal and state agencies.”

In Alachua County, the center works closely with the SWAG (Southwest Advocacy Group), which has made a huge impact on a low-income area and is building the new CHILD Center, a professional development model demonstration program serving young children from birth to 5 and their families.

The center is heavily involved with the Alachua County Children’s Advisory Board.

“I’ve always wanted to pursue the professional goals I’m achieving now, but I needed the context that UF and the Anita Zucker Center has provided to bring them to reality,” she said.

Research Impact: From Malaria Eradication to Better Childhoods:

University of Florida researchers Rhoel Dinglasan and Maureen Conroy are worlds apart in what they study, but they both demonstrate how UF is attracting the best and the brightest to address crucial problems.

Dinglasan is an ambitious researcher with the goal of eradicating a disease that has plagued mankind for more than 4,000 years.

Conroy is working locally, around the state and nationally to forge alliances across disciplines to help children from birth to age 5 get off to a good start.

 

CHRIS EVERSOLE has been a keen observer of business, government and culture in the Greater Gainesville Area while living here over the past two decades. His experience includes work with the University of Florida and Alachua County Government. He also has been a journalist and public relations professional in the Tampa Bay and Sarasota-Bradenton areas, as well as in Michigan, Ohio and New York. 

Leave a Comment