Posted November 4, 2010

Building Temple’s research enterprise: A conversation with Senior Vice Provost Ken Blank

Kenneth J. Blank was named senior vice provost for research and graduate education at Temple last spring, after serving as vice provost for research at Boston’s Northeastern University and Drexel University. Upon his arrival, he launched a rigorous agenda to meet with all faculty, chairs and deans to familiarize himself with the research and creative work of the Temple community. His goal is to build and implement a new direction for growing the university’s research enterprise. He recently discussed his vision for research and graduate education at the university with the Temple Times.

Temple Times: This is a kind of homecoming for you since you once served on the faculty at Temple’s School of Medicine. What is it that attracted you to return to Temple?

The City of Philadelphia and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania have internationally recognized institutions of higher education. My passion has been to provide opportunities for faculty to build research programs and make collaborative connections across disciplines and departments that facilitate even greater achievements.

Temple has an outstanding reputation. Anywhere you go in the country people know Temple University. This university has a breadth of departments far exceeding most institutions, so I believed it would be exciting to return to Philadelphia to work with the faculty, chairs and deans to increase the visibility of and add resources to our excellent research programs here.

What have been your first steps?

My goal is to meet every faculty member in every department of the schools and colleges of the university to learn about their research and creative work. We aim to build upon the tremendous strengths that we already have and to identify and build upon emerging opportunities. We are providing ways that faculty throughout the university with similar research interests in different disciplines can find each other to form multidisciplinary collaborative teams and advance outstanding research programs.

We recognize the passion that members of the faculty have for their research, scholarship and creative endeavors. One of my roles is to help them find the funding to be able to build and sustain these multidisciplinary research programs.

What have been your impressions so far?

What I have found is that there is a significant body of world-class research and creative work at Temple. One of the challenges is that there are few external stakeholders who appreciate the extensiveness and diversity of Temple’s research enterprise. One of my major objectives is to communicate with members of the community, industry, government agencies and other universities about these outstanding achievements.

Realizing that you can’t possibly cover them all, could you highlight a few of Temple’s research strengths?

Faculty members are performing translational and biomedical research, and there are opportunities to increase our research in this important area especially by fostering collaborations between basic and clinical researchers, physicians and engineers. We also have a large concentration of faculty with outstanding expertise in water resources and biomedical engineering. Many faculty members are leaders in research related to learning; and many are deeply committed to broadening diversity of underrepresented students and faculty in science and social science disciplines. Some faculty members have joint appointments in more than one college to facilitate interdisciplinary research activities in the areas of management, bioengineering and the social sciences. Our faculty in the health professions, public health, kinesiology and social work regularly collaborate with faculty in the medical school to improve community health.

What priorities have you set for enhancing Temple’s research strengths?

Where we have emerging programs, we want to be able to make internal investments to help them become one of the top programs in the country over the next five years. So it really is about finding that niche area where we can make an important impact on the field of study.

What are the advantages of bringing together researchers from different disciplines to work on projects?

We are entering a phase in this country where universities need to be more involved in solving important societal issues. When you develop a solution to a problem, you want to be sure that it can be implemented successfully. Getting diverse viewpoints around the table to determine whether a solution is practical, or how it can be made practical, becomes very important. You really have to get a multi-disciplinary view in order to be able to develop and implement a practical solution.

How can the university attract more support from industry and the business community?

With a better understanding of our specific capabilities, industry partners will be able to say, ‘We need that capability and we are interested in working with you on developing it.’

I want this university to be the place where industry thinks, ‘Let’s go to Temple.’ Where government agencies say, ‘Temple is the place; we have to look there first.’

Are these partnerships also where commercialization or technology transfer become an important part of the research equation?

Yes. The aim of commercialization is to be able to partner with industry to better align investments at early stages of innovation so that technologies and discoveries can be used for the benefit of the public.

We want to be able to say to our potential industry partners that are interested in licensing our technology, ‘These are our technologies and we will work with you to move the research and development in the direction that best defines a marketable product or service.’ We want to make sure that when we produce a technology, like a biomedical device, that it can perform an essential task. If a device is a great machine, but it doesn’t fit in the body, it may not do any good. The end users, such as industry and practitioners who will use the technology, have the expertise to guide us in these areas.

You are also responsible for graduate education. Could you explain its role in the research enterprise?

The philosophy that I have always espoused is that graduate education and research are intimately intertwined. Great graduate programs require outstanding research programs. We need to be looking at all aspects of the research enterprise, and that includes graduate education and assessing how we can continually improve the quality of our already outstanding graduate programs to attract the top students. A major area of development is to create interdisciplinary graduate programs that will be linked to our interdisciplinary research.

Where would you like to see Temple’s research enterprise a year from now, five years from now, and even 10 years from now?

A year from now I hope that we have fostered an environment in which multi-disciplinary collaboration on research thrives. We will start the process of developing these emerging programs by providing resources to enable them to become large programs that will be distinguished as one of the top in the country.

Five years from now we expect that these programs will be self-sustainable.

Beyond that time framework, we aim to have firmly established Temple as a national and global leader in research in these areas of excellence.