The University of Idaho’s research enterprise is unique among higher education. Our faculty and staff not only contribute new discoveries and partner with the state and private industry to find solutions to world problems, they teach our students – both graduate and undergraduate – in the lab and the classroom every day.
That research hasn’t taken a break since COVID-19’s arrival, but the global pandemic and statewide stay-at-home order have changed how we conduct this work.
We continue to collaborate with our research partners to address questions and provide solutions that benefit our state, including offers of equipment and support in the fight against coronavirus. Our dozen-member team from the Institute for Modeling Collaboration and Innovation is leading COVID-19 modeling for Idaho cities and counties as part of an effort to understand the virus.
Additionally, engineers and others on campus continue to capitalize on our research mission, and are using feedback from local medical staff to improve upon open-source filtration mask designs and boost supplies of personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer, face shields and mobile mask sterilization systems.
Brad Ritts, our interim vice president of research and economic development, has some important insights about the effort, as well as our field work and our Research Working Group.
Scott Green: How is research at U of I changing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic?
Brad Ritts: Our researchers recognize the critical importance of reducing transmission of this virus and we’ve taken steps to defer non-essential research, comply with the stay-at-home order, observe social distancing and other precautions in our critical on-site research, which continues. One critical response that highlights the importance of research universities has been the rapid shift to work on COVID-19 around campus. We have several groups studying virus transmission and they are leading modeling efforts on the impact across Idaho. Others are finding ways to build and distribute filtration masks, protective equipment and hand sanitizer to Palouse-area hospitals. Our rapid ramp-up in these topics is enabled by the established, underlying technical capability and experience that results from our university’s research mission.
SG: Funding for our research continues to grow. U of I conducted $113 million in research last year. How does that translate into the work we do on campus and around the state?
BR: I’m proud of the leading role our university has in generating and disseminating new knowledge to help address Idaho’s challenges and capitalize on Idaho’s opportunities. The research funding our investigators bring to the university and the activity that investment generates contributes to our local and state economy and builds our state’s intellectual capital by attracting talented faculty, staff and students – and by training students who go on to join the workforce. When one looks at some of our most prominent research programs – forestry and forest products, agriculture, cybersecurity – it’s clear our work is addressing issues that matter to Idaho, Idahoans and the economic success of our state.
SG: You’re chairing our Research Working Group. What is your primary focus of the working group? What role do you see that working group having in our university’s ability to achieve R-1 status by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education?
BR: The working group is focused on attainable strategies that will increase the stature, productivity and quality of research and graduate education at the university. If we improve our productivity enough, we may achieve an R-1 ranking, which is a classification based on the amount of research and graduate education universities complete as measured by factors including research expenditures and doctoral degrees awarded. Achieving R-1 would be notable for a comprehensive university of our size and will require some investment, but will indicate we’ve expanded opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students to participate in cutting-edge research, originated more state-of-the-art innovation and grown more startup companies out of the university.
SG: How important is research to our students’ future careers? Why should we get more students involved in research?
BR: Students at a research university learn from professors who are at the top of their fields. These professors define the future of their disciplines and can convey the growth and change of their fields to students. Looking back over my own education, the most defining moment came when I walked into a geology professor’s lab and told him I was interested in his field and wanted to get involved in research as an undergraduate. I left the lab that day with several ideas for projects and an invitation to join that professor’s research group for fieldwork that summer. I want those kinds of research experiences and close interactions with faculty and graduate students to be available to all undergraduates who want them, and I think the statistics on undergraduate participation in research at U of I show we’ve got a great start.
SG: What’s an example of research at U of I that gets you excited for the future?
BR: Every time I meet a new researcher I get excited about a new topic – that’s the great thing about a comprehensive research university. Just before COVID-19 kept us home, I spent a couple hours touring facilities and talking with students and faculty in the Department of Psychology and Communication Studies. We saw project after project of innovative investigation into perception, awareness and decision-making, leaving me hungry to learn more. Another example is an area of strategic growth I think is very important for us: the broad area of sustainability. We need to draw on some of our core, long-term strengths in areas like water resources, mineral extraction, agriculture and natural resources and integrate with initiatives that address the technical, commercial, political and policy influences on how our economy and those industries can continue sustainable, beneficial growth.
SG: Thanks, Brad, for your effort to prioritize our research mission, especially as we gear up for this fight against COVID-19.