University of South Alabama’s Investment in Research is Paying Dividends

Posted on August 24, 2020 by Katie Lamar Jackson
Katie Lamar Jackson

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The University of South Alabama began upping its research game several years ago by investing in its faculty, students and facilities. Since then, USA has seen significant growth in outside funding, which grew by 43% in 2019 to a total of $87 million. (University of South Alabama)

By Katie Lamar Jackson for This is Alabama

How do you build a world-class research university? You do so by investing in faculty, students and infrastructure.

That’s the approach the University of South Alabama has been taking for several years, and it appears to be working. In 2019, the Mobile-based university set a new record by garnering $87 million in external research grants and contracts, a 43% increase over 2018.

According to Lynne Chronister, USA’s vice president for research and economic development, this growth is exactly what the university had in mind when it kicked off a new research initiative several years ago.

At the time, USA had an exceptional teaching reputation, but its research program was underdeveloped. “The university was ready to move to the next level, which was (to become) a research university by Carnegie standards,” Chronister said.

Their strategy: invest internally to help USA faculty and students create leading-edge programs that would grow the university’s research base and credentials. Part of their strategy, however, was to also invest in Alabama.

“We really, really care about promoting health and quality of life in Alabama,” Chronister said. “It’s written into our goals.” Which is why, even though USA’s research programs address a wide range of issues with national and global implications, its focus remains close to home.

For example, USA’s top-funded programs such as lung biology, marine science and cyber security address health, economic and national security issues affecting the world, but these programs have a powerful impact locally and statewide, too.

The same goes for USA’s work on new technologies, such as a multidisciplinary project exploring the use of ionic liquids (stable salts that never dissolve) to scrub carbon monoxide from the air, which has applications for the International Space Station and for the automotive industry. Or USA’s work with carbon nanofibers, which may benefit Mobile-area airplane manufacturer Airbus as well as other industries.

According to Kevin White, chair of USA’s department of civil, coastal and environmental engineering, focusing on local needs with global applications is central to his department. “For example, we have the only two coastal engineering faculty in the state, which is appropriate because we’re down here on the coast,” he said. Their work helps protect Alabama’s coastline, which is vital the state’s economy, but it’s also valuable to coastal cities across the nation and beyond.

White’s own work on waste-water management problems in Alabama’s Black Belt is another example. Though it focuses on the needs of local communities, its worldwide implications have spurred the creation of a consortium that includes representatives from multiple universities, governmental agencies, nonprofits and businesses.

USA’s research investment in such fields as education, the arts and humanities and anthropology also have local and global impacts. Take Lesley Gregoricka for example. An associate professor of anthropology, Gregoricka’s work as a bioarchaeologist takes her across the world to study ancient skeletal remains, which may hold answers to modern-day problems. But she also uses her skills pro bono to help local law enforcement agencies with forensic investigations and cold cases.

These are just a few examples of how USA’s investment in research is helping expand its funding, programs and reputation, which is also an investment in Alabama. “By growing our research program, we are helping advance the reputation of Alabama as a progressive research center,” Chronister said.

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