The University Record, December 7, 1998

Ulaby recommended to serve as interim VP of research

By Jane R. Elgass

Fawwaz T. Ulaby, the R. Jamison and Betty Williams Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, will be recommended to the Regents at their December meeting as interim vice president for research. If approved, his appointment will be effective Jan. 1.

Ulaby, who also was named an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor this fall, will succeed Frederick C. Neidhardt, who will begin his retirement furlough in January.

“Professor Ulaby is an outstanding scholar and internationally renowned researcher who will leave his mark on the University’s research agenda. We are so fortunate to have an opportunity to engage his talents and insights for the benefit of the academic mission at the U-M,” said Provost Nancy Cantor in announcing the recommendation. “I enthusiastically recommend his appointment.”

In commenting on the recommendation for the Record, Ulaby said, “The U-M is a great university and unquestionably among the very best of American institutions of higher learning, both public and private. I am certainly honored to be asked to serve as interim vice president for research, and I accept the challenge with excitement and enthusiasm.

“I am looking forward to working with members of the central administration and with fellow faculty and staff to maintain and promote the tradition of research excellence, to explore ways to embark on new major research initiatives, to help expand the scope of research opportunities to undergraduate students, to contribute to the formulation of the national agenda for basic research, to broaden and extend the U-M’s connection to and partnership with industry, and to examine ways to lighten the administrative and accounting burdens that the faculty and research staff have to deal with.”

Ulaby also noted that the University leadership “has embarked on a new approach for establishing basic research initiatives in topical areas, strategically chosen so as to propel the U-M into national prominence in those areas in a relatively short period of time. Formation of the Life Sciences Commission is a perfect example of this strategy. I expect that similar commissions will be set up in the future to identify cutting-edge research areas in other parts of the science, arts and humanities academic spectra, and I hope to contribute to those endeavors.”

Ulaby also hopes to work with Cantor and Sandra Gregerman, director of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), to make it possible for every interested student to participate in the program, which offers a one-on-one research experience with a faculty researcher. “Research represents a vehicle that each individual student can use to travel beyond the realm defined by lectures and textbooks, and to experience the sense of discovery himself or herself,” Ulaby noted.

External relations related to research, “an important but not very visible function” of the Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR), is another area with which Ulaby will concern himself.

The U-M research community interacts with funding agencies, national academies, organizations and institutes as well as national associations and science coalitions, sometimes through OVPR, sometimes through faculty who serve on boards and commissions. “This is an important role that the U-M research community as a whole plays by contributing to the formulation of the directions, scope and priorities of the national agenda for basic research,” Ulaby explained.

There also is interaction with industry, sometimes as a result of funding by the National Science Foundation and other agencies that is set up for joint university-industry participation. In some applied disciplines, Ulaby noted, “transitioning the results of research conducted in the University into an industrial application represents a natural step that can benefit all parties involved, including society at large.”

Ulaby also wants to devote some time to those he calls the “often unsung heroes of the U-M research enterprise—the faculty and staff researchers.”

The past decade, he noted, has seen the imposition of more and more federal regulations and more complicated accounting rules and procedures. “Were we to define a formula for success in academic research in the 1960s and into the 1970s, it would consist of primarily one variable—scholarship, the judicious search for knowledge, which usually entails a lot of hard work, guided by some mixture of intuition, creativity and experience,” Ulaby said. In those days, he noted, “proposal preparation was relatively straightforward, the success rate for funding was reasonable—about one out of four at the National Science Foundation (NSF)—and reporting requirements boiled down to forwarding copies of journal publications to the sponsoring agencies.

“Today, it’s a very different ball game,” Ulaby noted. “The relative weight attached to scholarship probably constitutes less than 50 percent of the total effort and type of talent needed to succeed as a researcher.

“Today’s successful researcher is an entrepreneur with good managerial skills, basic understanding of accounting systems and procedures, and a thorough knowledge of federal regulations and compliance standards, traits over and above superb scholarship, graduate student mentoring and active participation in professional societies and commissions.”

Today, Ulaby noted, competition is much more severe, with the success rate for most NSF programs at one out of 20. And if the research is a joint project with other colleagues, institutions or agencies, management becomes more complex.

“Like it or not,” Ulaby said, “it is a reality we cannot change. It is imposed on us by the larger society. What we can do as an institution, however, is to examine our internal policies and procedures, seek input from administrators and faculty and staff researchers, and then implement modifications that would result in less bureaucratic burden and better support services.”

Since joining the U-M in 1984, Ulaby has been directing large, interdisciplinary NASA projects aimed at the development of high-resolution satellite radar sensors for mapping earth’s terrestrial environment, including forest type, biomass and carbon content. In 1994 he led a large team of fellow faculty, research scientists and graduate students in conducting a major experiment at a forested site in the Upper Peninsula in conjunction with measurements performed by a Space Shuttle-borne radar flying overhead.

Over the past 10 years, he also has served as director of a $13 million NASA-funded Center for Space Terahertz Technology, whose research was aimed at the development of electronic devices and circuits that operate at wavelengths intermediate between the infrared and microwave regions of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Ulaby is the author of eight books, contributed chapters to several others and has published more than 600 scientific papers and reports. He also has supervised more than 100 master’s and Ph.D.-level graduate students.

He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, serves on several national scientific boards and commissions, and has received numerous awards, including the U-M Distinguished Faculty Achievement Award in 1991. He also was elected an honorary life member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers for his contributions to the experiments his team conducted on space shuttle radar.


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