Alice Gast, President, Lehigh University and Lee T. Todd, Jr., President Emeritus, University of Kentucky

July 2, 2012

Editor’s Note: Two of our Hertz Fellows enjoyed a delightful, peer-to-peer exchange during a joint interview for this edition of the Hertz Foundation Newsletter. Here is the “Community” portion of that rich conversation. Our website hosts the full array of discussion topics, including: Advice to Hertz Fellows; Encounters with Edward Teller; University Leadership Stresses; Attracting Great Students and Faculty; and Furthering the Fact-Based Voice of Science in Policymaking, Education and Society.

 – Interdisciplinary Trends: Community and Collaboration

Dr. Todd: If you have an engineer look at a problem, you’ll get an engineering solution. If you have a medical researcher look at a problem you’ll get a medical solution. You have the two of them look together you’ll get a patent.

Dr. Gast: You bring up the important aspect of interdisciplinary work. It takes a team. You really want scientists who are strong in their disciplines but who can work across boundaries with scientists from other backgrounds. It’s an exciting time. The technologies and capabilities on the experimental level and the computational level have never been stronger. The tools are there; the willingness and eagerness of the scientific community is there; and fundamental discoveries are leading to practical applications in a shorter timeframe than ever. That’s exciting on campus, too.

Dr. Todd: In the presidential position, we have to break down a lot of barriers to make it work effectively. I think you have to make sure that people talk to each other and get to know each other. It’s hard to do on a campus, especially with peers focused on their own work, their research objectives and so forth.

Dr. Gast:
We find that with graduate students especially. We have great student life activities that bring undergraduates together but a grad student’s life is really determined by the lab and the supervisor and the research group.

Dr. Todd: We have a monthly, Business-to-Business or “B to B” inviting researchers, local investors, business people and students to come to those meetings. Speakers talk about what they’re doing on campus. We let people interact. I’ve seen folks who’ve been on campus 20 years, who didn’t know each other, immediately get excited about doing something together. So you do have to find ways to get that interdisciplinary work to grow within an institution. I think they can easily get siloed if we’re not careful.

Dr. Gast: And space, the effective utilization of space, brings people from different disciplines together. We have a little house for the graduate students where they can get together. They’re very interested in professional development and some of the things they don’t learn doing the deep scientific work. They have an opportunity with sessions on professional development such as communications skills, interviewing—and all kinds of job/career trajectories in unusual directions. We also have a “dissertation boot camp” where they sign a pledge that they’ll work on their dissertations for a period of, I think, 36 or 48 hours. Food and amenities are supplied but they leave their cell phones and all their electronics at the door.

Dr. Todd: That’s it, Alice. We have a monthly wine and cheese evening on the patio of our faculty and staff center where professors bring their graduates. We also make sure we have beer, along with the wine and cheese (faculty are just grown up grad students who learned to drink wine but they like beer). But we just let them intermingle. And…I have to say it’s a very good move on the part of the Hertz Foundation to form a Hertz Fellows Community.

Dr. Gast: I think people really need community, maybe more than ever, since we spend so much of our time communicating electronically and connected to the world through our computers. The value of that face time is just so wonderful.

PART II – Advice for the Hertz Fellows

Dr. Todd: On the topic of what advice we would give to Hertz Fellows, I was going to bring up the public service aspect as well. I try to tell our students: Don’t just go to college to get a job—go to college to create a job. Do something out of the norm.

Dr. Gast: I think one of the wonderful things about having a Hertz Fellowship is that you’re free to do some riskier things, to do some out-of-the-box work because you’re not tied to a grant that was written by your professors, or that had other graduate students working on it before you, or that was related to some other field. You’re pretty much a free agent.

So I’m counseling students to take advantage of that and take some risks—and to think about how they can develop a habit of serving others—and serving the community is a great thing.

Dr. Todd: You mentioned free agent, Alice. I hadn’t really thought of it that way but it was free agency—I was able to work on a project at MIT that was not funded but it was something that one of my instructors was excited about. I found a home there—and ended up getting six patents under that work.

Dr. Gast: That paid off really well. [laughter]

Dr. Todd: I was doing a lot more applied research than what a lot of the other graduate students were doing there and it was something I would not have been able to do, I know, had I been attached to a contract of some sort. …One quick thing…I’ve really watched a lot of students…I taught at UK for nine years after I finished my degree but then I had those patents and I was watching 80 per cent of the electrical engineering students leave the state of Kentucky to find jobs.

So I started two companies:  One to make picture tubes for flight simulators; the other for teleconferencing systems and software. Hughes Aircraft bought the first company and I got Hughes to move two of their divisions to Kentucky; IBM bought the second one. I became VP of Lotus after that. But my goal was just to prove that we, inner-state in an agricultural area could create competitive jobs. So when I became president, we really made a push. We were in the top five or six for new company generation last year with about 90 start-up companies in Lexington now. Those companies brought in about $70 million of new investment capital just last year.

Dr. Gast: That’s wonderful.

Dr. Todd: It’s a passion—and it’s fun to see the new kids come to UK from Appalachia and other remote places who have no self esteem and don’t think they can compete. I mean I can bring people to Kentucky to do technology but we don’t need to. I had 70 engineers when IBM bought our company and 56 were UK graduates. We grew our own. I’m on the Business Higher Education Forum, which is about half CEOs and half university presidents. I actually call myself “the translator” between the CEOs and the academics. CEOs don’t think higher education can solve their problems, though they want it to. Academics don’t hear or understand the vocabulary of business. But there are solutions to our economic problems. And it takes conversations with those business folks, I think, to get us competitive again. Alice, maybe the Business Higher Education Forum is something you would be interested in.

Dr. Gast: I’ve been pretty busy on the “Council on Competitiveness,” which is another group like that. They’re both great organizations. And as I talked about earlier, on campus, one of the community-building activities for graduate students is professional development and skills they don’t learn doing the deep scientific work. They benefit from sessions on professional development, like communications skills, interviewing, and all kinds of job/career trajectories in unusual directions.

Dr. Todd: Hertz Fellows come out with a platform and I think an obligation. I had to sign an agreement that I would work for the country any time there was a national emergency. The Vietnam War was going on and Dr. Teller got me a deferment so that I could go to graduate school. I’ve always felt that if there’s something that comes up, I need to realize that I was given a real gift by the Hertz Foundation to go to college and get a degree. And I need to do something other than my own self-gratification.

You can take the strengths that you gain from having been a Hertz Fellow, and you can take it to other communities that need to be impacted. The world is finally realizing—especially the United States—that science and engineering are going to have to be stronger in order for us to be competitive.

So I’m trying to use some of my learnings from my Hertz days to find ways to create competitive jobs. I still greatly appreciate the basic science—but I think this country’s going to have to take the $5 billion in NSF grants every year and see that as seed money for new jobs. Dr. Suresh, the new Director of NSF, has started a program called I-Corp to do just that.

PART III – Attracting Excellent Students and Faculty

Dr. Gast: I think that having a distinguished fellowship is a great opportunity. It really helps you to recruit the top students. They have some freedom – a little bit more of a free agency. I know that worked well for me, having a Hertz Fellowship. I was able to choose. I had co-advisors and could choose a little bit of an interdisciplinary project—because I had a funding source. So I felt that a very important recruiting tool at Lehigh would be that use of fellowships. When I first started here, I put out some presidential fellowships that would be competitive. Departments could propose candidates and then use those fellowships as a recruiting tool.

Dr. Todd: Well, University of Kentucky is a flagship, state land grant university and I’ve had to focus just on recruiting students across the state to come here. Many of them, the top ones, feel like they need to go elsewhere. I use my own experience, attending UK as an undergraduate and then going on to MIT. We need stronger students to come to the University and we’ve put in some scholarships as well.

Public universities are almost like privates now. You have to scholarship students to get their attention. And part of it is the need-based aspect that many of their families face. One of my goals comes from being a native Kentuckian. My wife and I started first grade together—in a town of 2000 people. We wanted to come back to do something for the state: to improve its economy and its education. To get the top students to come here, you have to get out there and be visible in the top high schools. So there’s quite a bit of marketing that you have to do.

Dr. Gast: One of the things we’ve done to attract faculty is the creation of clusters for cluster hiring. We will tell a faculty member, for example, that we have a cluster for smart grids in energy systems. We’re recruiting in economics and electrical engineering and in physics and in other departments. You can talk to a prospective faculty member about the fact that they’ll have all the colleagues in their own departments plus they’ll have colleagues in other departments across campus—in the same cohort, as well as in the same timeframe. They’re not obliged to work together but they have the opportunity to build some great collaborations. And it does breed excitement, knowing that you’re one of a cluster coming in. That’s been used successfully at some larger places and we’re trying it out at Lehigh.

Dr. Todd: The other half of that is competitive space. We brought in some cancer researchers. Had we not been able to walk them into some space that they could finish out and design in their own way, we wouldn’t have gotten them. And that’s become a difficult thing. A lot of the universities, I think, built a lot of facilities when NIH budgets were increasing. But now, with the challenge and uncertainty of funding, it’s hard to build competitive space.
I do think there are bright people out there who want to be builders. They want to make a mark. That was one of the lures we used to bring in some of our top faculty when we built our $800M medical center. As I recruited people that were from institutions such as Harvard or Cleveland Clinic, I would tell them, “You know, you can stay at Harvard or you can stay at Cleveland Clinic and in 20 years, they’ll still be Harvard and Cleveland Clinic. But if you come here now, you can look back at something that you’ve really helped to build.”

It’s a “higher purpose” way to go through life. I think that’s what people want. We’ve brought in 15 new deans out of 17 colleges in the past 10 years, asking them to be a part of something, to help change things. It’s not scientific necessarily but it appeals to the human nature of strong people.

PART IV – An Encounter with Edward Teller

Dr. Todd: One Friday afternoon, I got a note from a professor asking me to come to his office. I’m glad I went in that afternoon instead of waiting until Monday. He said, “Edward Teller’s on campus and he wants to meet with some students. Would you like to meet him?” I said, “Sure!”

Teller was meeting with ten students at a time. He could be pretty gruff. He’d ask your name, your grade point standing and your favorite subject. Then he’d ask you a question in your favorite subject. One of my friends said, “thermodynamics.” When Teller asked him a question and he tried to answer it, Teller said, “Oh no… it’s obvious you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

So when he got to me, I gave him my information and he asked, “Will you come back after lunch and we can talk?” When we met, he asked, “What’s your favorite subject?” I had watched nine people respond before me, so I’d already thought about it. I answered, “electronic circuits.” That’s as far away from his field as I thought I could get. He asked questions for about an hour. I was just sure he was comparing the hillbillies of Kentucky to the students he was teaching in California.

So I did my best, and at the end of it he asked, “What do you want to study?” I said, “I’d like to study solid state electronics.” He said, “Well, you’ll go to MIT. Have you applied?” I had never, ever assumed I would be able to do that. He said, “I’ll get you a Hertz Fellowship if we haven’t given them all away this year. If I do, take it, it’s the best one you can get. If not, I’ll get you something else. A few weeks later, I got a telegram—which I still have—from him. I was offered the Hertz Fellowship and two weeks later, accepted to MIT.

When you get the Hertz, you need to go to a place that challenges the heck out of you
—scares you to death a little bit
—makes you realize you’re part of an elite institution. I would like more of our students to get Hertz Fellowships and to go to the MIT’s and places like that.

Dr. Gast: That’s a wonderful story. We should compare notes. I remember many of the questions he asked in great detail! When he asked what I was interested in, I said “physical chemistry” and he was a physicist
—so he got enough in there that the interview was rigorous – but fun.

Dr. Todd: There was one question I didn’t get and he said, “Well, this is a puzzle I heard at a cocktail party. I’ll show you in a minute.” He asked me something else and when the interview was over, he drew up the earlier problem on the chalkboard – and then – he smashed the chalk against the board and said, “That’s the most ungodly mess I’ve ever seen! … You go home and think about it and I’ll go home think about it. Can you come back in the morning?” He was going to give another lecture. I said, “I’ll go home and work on it.” He said, “No, you don’t work on things like this. You just dream about them and you either get them or you don’t.” 

Well, I got it on the way home. About half way home, it finally triggered. So he put me in front of all these physics professors and said, here’s the problem … What did you get?” I wanted to impress him. Instead of a two-dimensional problem, I said, “Well in “n” dimension it will be—” Then he kind of screamed at me, “I didn’t ask you in ‘n’ dimensions!”

I was just blown away by the whole experience. But, if I’d known I was competing for a chance to go to MIT, I wouldn’t have been able to answer a single question!

Dr. Gast: Right! Well, wonderful. What a great story. You could actually suggest to the Hertz Foundation a venue where we could share these. There could be some really great stories on our interview memories.

PART V – Present Stresses for Research Universities

Dr. Gast: The stability of research funding and the sustainability of programs are very high on my list. It’s great to have increases in funding but there are also cutbacks. The ups and downs are problematic. Being able to rely on sustainable and stable funding is necessary so that we can really move our research agendas forward. Lee, would you agree with that? In some sense, uncertainty undermines the productivity and creativity in our research programs in ways that, I think, limits our successes
—and limits our ability to do the great things we’ve always done in research universities.

Dr. Todd: I totally agree with that. Public universities especially, are victims of receiving money from grantors that only look out two or four years ahead. Research requires a lot longer when you’re recruiting and when you’re making commitments to lab space. If the federal government really wants us to be the developers of new ideas for the nation, we need predictable funding. The long-term nature of collaborative research
—which is where all tough problems are solved
—means you really have to build a team of scientists and engineers that work together. If you only have three or four years’ funding for a grant, it makes that collaboration difficult. As Alice said, one of the pressures we have as university presidents is finding sustainable funding
—and long-term, predictable, steady funding sources. I’ve told the NSF that very thing. You know, they give out these five-year “wonder grants.” You have them for five years then you wonder what you’re going to do next.

Now, that’s beginning to change. I chair the Education Human Resources Advisory Board for NSF and there is a way to continue to invest in good researchers. You’ve got to bring on the young ones. That’s another stress. It takes so long for young professionals to get into these fields now and get funded. You worry about that
—but then you also have to invest in your stars in a sustainable way so that, during the last year of every grant, they’re not left wringing their hands.

Dr. Gast: That’s a great point. It’s how to fund new ideas and encourage new collaborations and interdisciplinary programs that our system is not used to funding. The new programs reach across boundaries. It challenges the agencies to figure out how best to judge merit. We need to make sure we’re keeping a certain amount of funding going to these new and different ideas, these interdisciplinary programs. They fall between the cracks because our agencies have their own departments and divisions.

This of course leads to the other main stress: Student access and affordability. The economic crisis is catching up to people whose kids were in middle school and younger, when they were planning for college. We’re very aware of the critical importance of our financial aid and our support capable students who don’t have the financial ability to pay for a university education. We will see more needy students —and students with higher needs.

PART VI – The Voice of the Scientist in Public Policy-Making

Dr. Gast: I do think the voice of the scientist is important. And that takes us to the K through 12 system: We need to teach science well
—make it accessible
—and engage students at an early age. We also need to engage the public 
—the lay public
—who think that science is hard or difficult or scary – or something that you can choose to “believe in” or not “believe in.” Everyone benefits when we promote fact-based dialogue. Everyone benefits when we can make scientific concepts accessible and understandable to people who don’t have the same training.

I’m encouraged to see journalists and social scientists who are getting more interested in talking to scientists. I think we benefit from a dialogue in academia that can then be translated out to the public.

Dr. Todd: Upon my return to faculty July 1, my focus is going to be K through 12 math and science, nationally as well as in Kentucky. I’m already on a couple of national groups addressing those areas. That’s something we need to definitely improve here in this state, and we’re making headway. But I totally agree. Twenty-five years ago, another fellow and I started the “Kentucky Science and Technology Council” to reform K through 12 education. Our overall K–12 system was deemed to be unconstitutional the way we were funding it before
—which explains a lot of problems. However, in the new law, they mentioned math only once; and didn’t mention science at all.
So KSTC started a “hands on” math/science initiative to focus on this issue. It has made a difference over the years, but if you don’t have a motivated teacher in front of those children, if you don’t have something exciting in front of them, it’s going to be a problem. So, that’s a commitment that I make and that I try to push in those areas as much as possible.

Dr. Gast: Yes. I’m seeing a really positive interaction between our College of Education and faculty across campus in the sciences and in engineering. In that way, we’re able to make inroads with the schools in the Lehigh Valley. Many of them have principals, superintendents of schools, and teachers who were educated at Lehigh
—so we benefit from those relationships. Our science faculty get involved and their knowledge and enthusiasm motivates young students. Our students get involved and the kids can see what it’s like to be a college student. They start to build their aspirations. I think that it really does take a team effort of the teachers, the parents and the university to help them work together. In the past, some people would try to impose their help on others. We’ve come to a much better collaborative approach that is making a difference.

Dr. Todd: I chaired a committee of the Association of Public Land Grant Universities called SMTI, Science Math Teacher Imperative. Through the APLU we got to present President Obama a list of about 110 land grant university presidents who had committed to change the way they prepare math and science teachers – realizing that we aren’t doing it properly.

And as Alice said, we’ve got engineering, arts and sciences, and education now working very closely together on a degree for teachers. Once a semester, I meet with all the aspiring students who want to teach K-12 math and science to tell them how important their role will be to the State and Nation. We’ve got to change the way we prepare teachers.

The other thing we’re doing within APLU that I’m still involved in is: The core math standard for the nation. Forty-eight states accepted it
—but it almost got accepted too fast. Nobody was really ready to instruct the teachers that are in place how to use it. Now we’ve received a major grant to get out there and find exciting ways for them to change over to a single math standard across the nation.

Dr. Gast: We’ve talked about communication to the public, using fact-based analysis. I saw your question about policymaking, and about good and accurate science and technology. I’m active on a committee in the National Academies called, “Committee on Science, Technology and Law.” We deal with this a lot when science enters into issues related to law enforcement or national security. I think it’s ever more challenging to make sure that good and accurate science and technology are available to inform policy-making and public opinion. There are so many blogs and wikis out there. You can pretty much find any information you want
—and any version of science that you want.

So I do think it’s important for scientists to take time to write general interest pieces and talk to interviewers – and I appreciate this interview for the Hertz Foundation Newsletter. I’ll be talking to NPR later today about Export Controls, one of my favorite subjects. It’s something that I didn’t appreciate as a young scientist but do now. Take the time to make sure accurate science is being given to reputable journalists and to publications that get visibility from the community.

Dr. Todd: When you look at how some of our legislators think about science and engineering
—I just don’t think they get it
—and what it’s going to take for this country to truly be competitive
—all the way down to primary school
—to encourage young people to take these subjects.

What Alice has done with her career is a perfect example. You can take the strengths that you gain from having been a Hertz Fellow out to other communities that need to be impacted. The world is finally realizing
—especially the United States
—that science and engineering are going to have to be stronger in order for us to be competitive.