2022 State of the College Address
On March 3, 2022, Dean David Vanden Bout presented to members of the college community his vision and reflections on core college values of community, discovery and impact at scale in the College of Natural Sciences.
It’s hard to believe it’s been two years now since the pandemic arrived on our campus and brought so much disruption and loss for so many lives.
We’ve come a long way in that time, with a lot of help from science and scientists at UT. And students, staff and faculty are back on campus, including here in UT's biggest academic building, Welch Hall.
Welch also happens to be a meaningful spot for me: my own academic stomping grounds as it were, for over three decades now. As an assistant professor, my first office and lab were just upstairs on the third floor. So it’s nice to be in a room that is like a home… to spend some time reflecting with you on where the college is now — and where it's headed.
I don’t know why we call those reflections a State of the College, but somehow we do. (I have not asked anyone from A&M to provide a rebuttal.)
Anyway, reflections like these got me thinking about who we are as a college and our values.
A story from my own start here at UT comes to mind. Back when I was a graduate student at UT, I was working on a new experiment that had never been done before call a Raman Echo. There was a longstanding question about fundamental properties of all liquids regarding the time scales for density fluctuations. Were liquids really completely random and uniform? Or did some structure exist that would affect their molecular properties? There were many papers that tried to answer this question, and both sides of the debate had strong evidence. But a theoretical paper posed that the only way to definitely answer the question was the echo experiment.
So that is what we were trying to do. But it involved a large number of finicky lasers, many of which were home-built and didn’t like to work for long periods of time. After many months of failure and frustration, I was in the library looking for insight.
Now this was at a time when you didn’t get an alert on your phone when a paper was published related to topics you kept up with. Instead, there were big tomes filled with indices of papers. I would diligently go every week and look for “Raman Echo” among the other keywords I tracked. Nothing. Every time I went to look, it seemed I was the only person on the planet interested in this technique.
And then there it was! One paper. I checked again. Yes. “Raman Echo.” Very clear. I wrote down the reference and went to search stacks of journals to find the paper. When I opened it up, I was more than a bit disappointed. The title of the paper: “No Raman Echo in Liquid Nitrogen.”
That sounds bad.
Then I read the abstract: “A combination of experimental observations and theoretical arguments leads to the conclusion that the application of the Raman echo technique to a vibrational degree of freedom in small-molecule liquids in general and to liquid nitrogen in particular is not feasible.” And then just for good measure it went on: “This result is due to the inherent properties of the liquid state rather than to the current state of technical possibilities.” So give up now while you can save your graduate career.
If you wanted to make this measurement, too bad. Couldn’t be done.
And so, naturally, my mentor and graduate advisor Mark Berg told me that we should keep on trying. After an initial shock of him asking me to do the impossible, we talked about why he thought we could make it work. Maybe this particular assumption in the paper was not correct. We were looking at a different molecule, and it had certain advantages in terms of its particular physical properties (despite the fact that the paper was very clear it would be impossible in all liquids). We needed to try to optimize our procedure before we simply accepted that it would never work.
This was not especially fun. I felt like I was banging my head against a wall. Pretty much everything we tried failed. But every day, my fellow graduate student Laura Muller and I would find something we could improve on. The laser could have more power. The alignment could be better. We could put new dye in the amplifier. Or maybe we’d just start over from the beginning and do it all over again.
When those ideas didn’t work, we would get together with Mark and decide on new approaches. After a lot of conversations with a lot of patient people, after experimenting to the point I thought I might bang my head against the wall forever, well, that wall came down. The experiment predicted to be impossible turned out to be possible. The undoable thing got done.
I tell this story now, because a lot of what we do in the College of Natural Sciences is about getting curious, not overwhelmed, in the face of challenges. I learned an important lesson from my early time at UT: What other people say is impossible may really be within reach.
But we have to get clear on some key values that underpin all of the work if we want to get big things done. You’ll hear me today focus on three Natural Sciences values:
We succeed when we have community, like I had in Mark’s lab to help me through the challenge.
We stay inspired when we drive after discovery. I got to experience that in the lab, too.
And we are passionately focused on the impact we have at scale. The experiment Laura and I did changed what we know about liquids; it answered a longstanding debate; it help to refine computer models of liquids that are now used for all sorts of problems from biology to material science. These better models impact medicine, energy and a whole host of applications. All from answering a fundamental scientific question.
In the past few months, the College of Natural Sciences has been hosting conversations about where we should be headed together. And those three values—community, discovery and impact—keep coming up:
Our ability to do everything we want to do requires having a welcoming and connected community; a spirit of discovery to fuel our research and teaching mission; and a readiness to embrace our size and scale so we can amplify our impact.
Let me offer up an example near and dear to my heart, from my time in Undergraduate Education.
Values Shape our Educational Successes
As recently as a decade ago, only about 1 out of 3 UT students who had come here to get a Natural Sciences degree were crossing our graduation stage at the four-year mark. Some changed majors to another college, but the majority didn’t graduate at all within four years. Too many dropped out of UT altogether. And of those who graduated, many racked up more debt than they had planned for.
Contrast that with today. After a lot of hard work, we have seen a huge turnaround. Last year, we had our highest graduation rate ever: with more than 77% of students who started in the college graduating within four years. Most of them did so with a Natural Sciences degree, just as they had planned.
Curricular and classroom reforms from faculty …. thoughtful programming, excellent advising, and other supports from staff… hard work by students – all of that is part of the story.
But so are our values.
Community is a part of this story.
Undergraduate education staff went above and beyond to support students from the moment they were admitted all the way to when our students made their journey across our graduation stage. They made sure every student could start out in a supportive, small, first-year learning community. Students get connected with peers and mentors. These are people to show them the ropes and help them along their way. They helped students make personal connections and join our community as they started at a huge university.
And our students have experiences filled with discovery.
About half of all students take part in the Freshman Research Initiative, where they do true scientific research. Our newer offering, the Inventors Program, focuses on tackling similar questions from industry and other groups outside of academia.
These are just two examples of how students get to have real experiences with scientific discovery and earn course credit, right out of the gate. When an FRI student sees their work published, or when an Inventors Program student sees a stakeholder adopt their entrepreneurial idea, they learn what they are capable of. And we know this makes our students more likely to stick with other courses and stay in their major.
When I go to other institutions, they talk about a really cool STEM education initiative they have started I always ask how many students are in the program.Generally the answer is something like "last year we had 8 students but this year we have grown to 12!" We serve more than a thousand each year in the FRI and Inventors alone…
That is impact at scale!
In the last ten years, we have seen a 30-point improvement in four-year graduation rates – more than any other college or school. We are a big part of the university’s remarkable success: As its largest college, we are leading the way.
And I’m especially proud that the most progress has happened for the students for whom this makes the biggest difference: our first-generation-in-college students and those whose household income makes them eligible for Pell Grants. A college education means upward mobility for them and their families.
And for society, our students’ success means fewer college dropouts; more of our graduates starting new chapters of their lives with less debt; and hundreds more degree holders with science, math and computing skills.
We now graduate 2,500 new undergraduates and nearly 150 new doctoral students every year. That is more in graduates than a lot of four-year colleges serve in total students.
And we get to access even more of what, in Texas, is an abundant “natural resource”: a dynamic pool of young talent. As more students graduate in four years, UT is able to enroll more freshmen. And this year, we enrolled more than ever before.
So we are welcoming more students. Hard-working, amazing, ambitious and from communities all over, they reflect the diversity of our growing state.
Serving more students, better reflecting the diversity of Texas and reaching new heights in our educational successes…. Doing all of that at once may sound impossible… But as I said, that’s the type of thing that happens here.
Values Drive Research Successes
Let me provide another example of our values at work from our research. Our research strengths are key to our excellence, and that, in turn, allows us to do well in graduate program rankings and recruitment of the best scientists.
But our values also come into play in helping us be an institution that attracts the very best.
Just across the street from here, our professor of molecular biosciences Jason McLellan and his team designed what is called the stabilized spike protein. This is what lets the COVID-19 vaccines do their life-saving work, and it is a big reason we were able to get together here. This is a story of impact and discovery, of course. But if you hear Jason talk, you’ll also hear a lot about his community: the students and postdocs he mentored and worked alongside with, and the scientists who guided him early in his career and collaborated with him in developing the vaccines.
Or think of UT astronomers Caitlin Casey and Steve Finkelstein, whose inspiring research projects earned them significant time on NASA’s just-launched James Webb Space Telescope — more than almost any teams in the world. Their drive for discovery is pushing them to explore galaxies and phenomena at the farthest outposts of the universe.
Or think of Elizabeth Gershoff in our Department of Human Development and Family Sciences, who studies the difference between children who are physically punished versus those disciplined without violence. With her research, Liz has helped to get laws changed around the world to help protect kids.
Each of the faculty members I’ve mentioned do stand-out work. Their accomplishments also reflect their teams and are made possible by talented graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, research and administrative staff, and often undergraduate researchers, too.
Focusing on Community
We need our full range of Texas Science community members to achieve all sorts of big, audacious goals. So let me spend the next few minutes focusing on our plans for advancing community.
Our professional faculty are key to our community and its excellence. These are faculty whose primary responsibilities are in instruction. Nearly all of our students and many other UT students learn from college professional faculty members.
One of my top priorities is to see our professional track faculty better connected to the campus experience: provided with professional development, connected to meaningful networks and better invested in, for the vital service that they do.
Also powering our mission are the outstanding college staff. When I first started in college administration, one of the things I appreciated most was getting to work alongside staff to move work forward.
These last couple of years, though, Natural Sciences staff have had to adapt again and again. Many have had to cope with new responsibilities and many with the rapidly rising cost of living in Austin.
Universities can be entrenched in one way of thinking. But the move towards more flexible work arrangements for more staff has been an important step in the right direction towards meeting staff where they are and rethinking old assumptions. We need more of this thinking—and are committed to leading it from here in the College of Natural Sciences.
We also have staff with extraordinary potential, talent and pride in their place of work. As a result, another priority is establishing a new staff leadership development offering. This will go along with the leadership development program we’ve started for faculty and help to advance career growth, networking and skill development.
Fostering a respectful culture throughout CNS is extremely important. We need to be a place where everyone understands that everyone counts. If we want folks to take risks together and to explore unknowns, we need them to feel respected, seen and included.
For students, this needs to start in their rigorous classes and their time in our labs. Learning science, math and computing isn’t complicated, but it is hard and often uncomfortable. Our subjects are demanding to learn. Doing research involves failure upon failure. We need to elevate our methods that marry rigor with support.
Even before the pandemic, concerns about stress and falling behind came up a lot for our students. The past two years have only deepened those worries. For years to come, we’ll be serving students affected by their experiences of pandemic learning.
So how can we meet their needs? Our Texas Mindset Initiative is a research-practice collaboration with our college and the College of Liberal Arts… In it, Natural Sciences faculty are learning to foster a “growth mindset” in the learning environment. Inclusive and adaptive classrooms are also key, as we look to address student concerns about mental health and support. Through our instructional supports and resources, faculty can access training and tools to design courses that have an eye both to student wellness and to the course material. We also seek to be much more intentional about supporting effective mentoring relationships in our labs and in our work spaces.
In short, we aim to offer experiences of welcome and belonging. Being a diverse community that values equity and inclusion helps us be a stronger community.
And it helps us to do better science, better mathematics and better computing, too! Research papers by more diverse teams get cited more often in the scientific literature. It’s helpful to bring people together from different perspectives and backgrounds, so they can make creative connections between their experiences and their research.
We will continue to implement the college-wide “Committing to Equity” plan that students, staff and faculty created with us in 2020. Through it, we are focusing on recruitment and retention strategies; projects to improve our climate at every level; and ongoing evaluation of our diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.
A genuine sense of community, in a place so large, filled with people from so many different backgrounds and ideas, may seem impossible. But our Texas Science community defines us, and it makes possible everything else we set out to do.
Let me turn now to discovery, a central value at the heart of our Natural Sciences mission and experience in research and education alike.
Across our 12 academic departments, we conduct basic research that leads to new understanding. This curiosity-driven exploration is at the heart of science — and the world needs academic institutions like ours to produce it.
The kind of research we do here has helped to bring about countless medical advances and many paradigm-shifting technologies. But it starts with something simple: with a question or an idea.
Our faculty lead our discovery-driven pursuits. This academic year, we hired and welcomed 24 outstanding new tenure-track and tenured faculty members. They are helping us to maintain our strengths across dozens of research specializations — and venture into new ones.
And we are working hard to break down barriers and foster new research directions across disciplines and throughout the university. Spanning beyond the boundaries of disciplines helps us to do new things, as does supporting our researchers at critical junctures in their careers. So the college is complementing its existing grant-making program for interdisciplinary teams, the CNS Catalyst Grants, with a new grants program to support associate professors as they take their research into new areas. We had applicants from across 10 departments in the first year of the Spark Grants program and will support at least five new investments every year moving forward.
It’s also important that we bring the spirit of curiosity and the drive to learn more… our critical thinking skills… to encounters with our history and our opportunities to understand the experiences of others around us right now. We might like to imagine science is somehow neutral and removed from complex issues in society. But, as I’ve already stressed, discovery is a shared pursuit.
So we are having conversations together about the overlapping areas of identity, lived experience and science. Our “New Equations” speaker series is a big part of this. Each semester, we are inviting prominent authors to come and engage with us in this dialogue.
In our educational mission, discovery is also at the forefront, and that’s as true outside of class as in. Students often have some of their most important experiences studying abroad, working in a lab with faculty, going to an internship or leading a student organization. These things can make a lasting impression in a young life. But, for many of our students, who have to earn money in most of their time outside the classroom, these types of experiences feel out of reach, unaffordable, even impossible.
(There’s that word again!)
We want to make sure students across the college encounter a level playing field when it comes to experiential opportunities that give our students a leg up for the future. These experiences are a big reason for coming to a major research university like ours. They should be accessible to everyone.
We also are adapting our existing models to help more students discover pathways into careers that excite them. Just this week, UT and our college entered into a pair of new agreements with Austin Community College. Select ACC students will now be involved in UTeach ACCess, which builds the pipeline for students who will transfer to UT and aim to get a head start towards one-day teaching science or math. And our own CNS students will have new opportunities to pursue a biotechnology certification with ACC.
Seeking to Have Impact at Scale
And, finally, I want to turn to the idea of having impact at scale.
Our size and our breadth provide us an opportunity to make a huge, Texas-sized impact in training the next generation of scientists, in breakthroughs in research and in inspiring the public.
We have opportunities for impact in lives here on the Forty Acres and for millions of people in Texas and around the world.
Tomorrow, we celebrate the campus-wide launch of our university-wide “What Starts Here” campaign. We’ll continue to build upon philanthropic investments to complement our federally supported research, and to help us take big steps forward. In our research—whether in infectious diseases or biodiversity, robotics or new materials, the study of the universe or how we can ensure families and individuals have nutritious foods and resiliency—we are seizing opportunities and creating impact.
I’ll highlight two examples of initiatives, led here in Natural Sciences, that you will be hearing a lot about. Both affect our university at large and extend well beyond its boundaries.
Right now, we are expanding our network of Texas field stations. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, which is now a part of the College of Natural Sciences, became our newest designated UT field station in the fall. Field stations allow researchers across UT to monitor change and conduct experiments that are vital for understanding and responding to challenges we face, including the threat of climate change. They give students opportunities for exploration and hands-on learning. And they provide a gateway for decision-makers to glean insights from science, both about how to conserve unique biodiversity in Texas and about what it means for addressing the global biodiversity challenges.
We will also continue to see remarkable, cross-university impact with our new Machine Learning Lab. Anchored in our Department of Computer Science, it includes data scientists, engineers and computing experts who can help accelerate research directions all across UT. And we are extending our impact and growth in high-demand learning areas like data science and computing.
Imagine our impact when we are able to one day equip more students across all of the campus to understand and analyze data… and to tackle problems through computing. We would be helping to send out nearly 10,000 new UT alumni with more of the cutting-edge skills necessary to tackle 21st century problems.
Our size also allows us to bring science to the public on a massive scale. As a public institution we are directly tied to the citizens of Texas. Developing strong mechanisms for public engagement helps ensure our society knows the importance of the scientific research we do and the impact of our science education for students.
Part of this work has occurred for years through our efforts in K-12 schools, with UTeach and our Charles A. Dana Center and numerous department outreach programs.
We are developing now our plan to bring together and bridge efforts from different parts of our college — the Marine Science Institute, the Wildflower Center, the Texas Memorial Museum and the McDonald Observatory. We aim to inspire and engage a broader public, bringing our message about the impact of science to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, every year. In doing so, we will demonstrate that the work we do across the college translates into real benefits in people’s lives.
So as I wrap up, I invite you to reflect on how you will be a part of our Texas-sized impact. Whether you’re a graduate student in the lab; a faculty member teaching a course; an undergraduate studying late into the night; a staff member making our college function or a helpful friend and advisor, you have a chance to bring out the best in other people and be a part of our impact.
The bar we set for ourselves is high—educating generations of future leaders, inspiring a culture that supports science and making breakthrough discoveries.
We can nurture curiosity and protect the natural world, sidestep the next pandemic and harness the full potential of technology. Clearing that high bar isn’t impossible. But it takes uniting around our values.
You are all part of this and the work to advance community, drive discovery and take advantage of our size and scale to make a meaningful impact.
I am proud to join with you in this work, and I am honored to serve as your dean.