by Sally Post
A Conversation with President M. Duane Nellis
M. Duane Nellis became the 16th president of Texas Tech University in 2013. Watch and listen as he speaks about his first days on the job.
M. Duane Nellis became president of Texas Tech University on June 17, 2013. He comes to Texas Tech from the University of Idaho, where he had served as president since 2009. Nellis previously served as provost and senior vice president at Kansas State University and as dean of the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences at West Virginia University. He is an internationally recognized researcher in the field of satellite data and geographic information systems used to analyze various dimensions of the earth’s land surface.
Nellis sat down with Texas Tech Discoveries for an interview recently to talk about his research and his expectations for the university as it moves toward becoming a national research university with characteristics similar to member institutions of the Association of American Universities (AAU).
Dr. Nellis, tell me about your research?
My research specialty is remote sensing and geographic systems. I have done a lot of work with aircraft-borne sensors and satellite data to look at land cover change. I have worked in a lot of different areas, including the High Plains area of western Kansas, where I used satellite data to look at water use characteristics for irrigated agriculture.
I’ve also worked in places like Botswana in southern Africa, where I looked at two issues: overgrazing along the fringe of the Kalahari Desert and the impact of elephants on the northern part of Botswana on the Chobe area with a Mopani forest cover. The elephants can be quite destructive. They will debark the trees and push the trees over to get at the leaves. In northern Botswana at that time they had an overpopulation of elephants. So that represents the general thrust of my research.
What led you into this field?
When I was in graduate school, I had a major professor whom I had taken some classes from and enjoyed working with. He thought remote sensing was an up-and-coming technology, and I thought it was a fascinating subject. It combined my interest in looking at earth processes with using scientific sensors, and it seemed an exciting field. When I got into it, some of these satellites had just been launched a few years before, so it was like the newest technology that was out there. So I was able to couple that fascinating development with trying to understand earth processes.
I ended up as a teaching assistant in a remote sensing class and that certainly got me even more intrigued in the possibilities. After I finished my doctoral degree at Oregon State University, I went to Kansas State University for my first faculty appointment, and I had the opportunity to get involved in remote sensing projects in Kansas.
Did you do any research as an undergraduate student?
I did have some experience. There was one major project that I worked on that looked at land cover change in northwestern Montana, an area that had been significantly logged and deforested. There were natural resource management issues that I looked into as a senior project.
President Duane Nellis and his wife, Ruthie. Nellis comes to Texas Tech from the University of Idaho, where he served as president since 2009. Click image to enlarge.
Talk about the importance of having student researchers?
Involving undergraduates as well as graduate students in research is one of the opportunities that can be a defining component of our institution as we are viewed nationally. Many major research universities tend to focus on grad students and limit access for undergrads. But I think one of the characteristics of TTU is to try to fully engage undergraduates in research and scholarship activities, as well as grad students. It’s no wonder that The Wall Street Journal has ranked us 18th in the country as far as our students being a success when they graduate. One of the reasons is the opportunity to gain research experience.
Are you able to stay active in your research?
Somewhat. It’s not like work but more of a passion. I have been able to stay engaged with various activities. I had a book that came out in 2009 on remote sensing, The SAGE Handbook of Remote Sensing. And I’m a joint editor on an international journal of remote sensing, Geocarto International.
Do you miss being more active in your research?
I find that I enjoy the administrative challenges, as well. But I think the fact that I can stay somewhat tied to my research has been gratifying and rewarding in a lot of ways.
How did your experience as a researcher helped you become a better administrator?
The fact that I’ve walked the walk as a faculty member and had success in publishing and securing grants has certainly helped me become more effective as an administrator. It is what led me into administration in the first place. My faculty colleagues had respect for me as a researcher and thought I’d be a good administrator, as well. The research experience of managing large grants and having lots of graduate students are skills that all translate into being a more effective administrator.
What is your vision for Texas Tech as a major research university?
I’d like us to be even more nationally prominent. My goal is to move us to “very high research activity” status through the Carnegie classification. We’re classified as “high research activity” status now. My vision is to have even greater success, bringing in major interdisciplinary grants that will bring us national recognition. But I think we need to do it in focused areas. We can’t be all things for all people. We have to recognize that we have research focal areas where we have potential to be internationally recognized, like our wind efforts and our food safety work. The area of energy systems is an area where I think we have an opportunity to be a national leader.
When you say energy systems, what do you mean?
Wind, oil, natural gas—the whole dynamic of what is below, on and above the earth’s surface. We need to look at how we use water in the context of energy. All of those things are part of a systems approach. I think Texas Tech has a lot of expertise to grow our contributions as well as gain international recognition.
What are the challenges you see facing Texas Tech in the next few years?
I think we have a great opportunity now that we’ve qualified for the state’s National Research University Fund (NRUF). I think the key challenge we face is being strategic in the way in which we invest those funds to leverage greater levels of success. I think the key is whether we can be strategic and focused enough versus trying to spread the money more broadly and have little impact.
What are you looking forward to most about being at Texas Tech?
Well, it’s exciting. I think this institution is on the move in a very positive way. I think it’s made substantial progress in the last five to six years. We just need to build on that positive momentum. I think that’s one of the things that attracted me here. There have been significant increases in success, but we need to keep elevating those efforts. We have made a lot of progress, but we still have a lot of progress to make as we look to the future. I was here eight or nine years ago when I was provost at Kansas State. To see the level of investment that has taken place on campus in that period of time was very, very impressive when I started to look at the opportunity here. We have great faculty here, and we’re making outstanding hires of new faculty. With the great faculty, great staff support, student success and strong alumni support, I think this institution is poised for much greater levels of national and international recognition.
There is a lot of emphasis put on creative activities, and social sciences and humanities scholarship at Texas Tech. How does that benefit the university?
This is very important. I think if we want to be AAU-like and gain the national respect that we all want for Texas Tech, plus enrich the lives of our students, staff and faculty, we need the spectrum of successes in the arts and humanities as well as in the hard sciences. I think that makes for a better institution because the people in the arts and humanities look at things differently, they analyze things differently than those in the sciences. I think it’s a great opportunity to build national recognition by having that spectrum of strengths.
What have you seen so far that you really like about Texas Tech?
It’s the attitude of our faculty; they are very student centered as well as being outstanding researchers and creative specialists. That kind of welcoming attitude is the culture of the Tech campus. I think that is very, very important when it comes to selling ourselves as we recruit new students. If we can get prospective students to campus, they are generally sold on what they see here.
The quality I see is impressive. For example, I was out at the National Wind Institute at Reese Technology Center recently and was very impressed with what they are putting together there. Through the Scaled Wind Farm Technology (SWiFT) initiative they are looking at the way the winds move through the turbines and how they interact. That is very exciting work. The SWiFT facility is an important partnership with the Department of Energy, Sandia National Laboratories and Group NIRE that provides Texas Tech with enormous future possibilities to help solve wind farm underperformance and help the U.S. meet its goal of increased wind energy production.
I’m looking forward to seeing more of the research capacity as I have a chance to visit various units in the coming months.
Sally Post is Director of Research and Academic Communications in the Office of the Vice President for Research at Texas Tech University.