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Spring 2014

A Conversation with Texas Tech’s New Vice President for Research

Robert V. Duncan discusses his vision for research at Texas Tech University as well as his personal research endeavors.

by Sally Logue Post

Robert Duncan

Robert V. Duncan became the vice president for research and professor of physics at Texas Tech University on Jan. 1. He comes to Texas Tech from the University of Missouri, where he served as vice chancellor for research since 2008. Duncan is a Fellow and a life member of the American Physical Society. He has published extensively in experimental low-temperature physics, including the observation of new phenomena near the superfluid transition in helium, and in new instrumentation development for physics research in space.

Duncan talked to Texas Tech Discoveries about not only his expectations for achieving Texas Tech’s goal of becoming a national research university, but also about what led him to his love of physics, his view of the arts and humanities, and his desire to return to ultra-marathon endurance races.

You were born in Missouri, the Show Me State. What did Texas Tech show you to make you move here?

Texas Tech University is at an exciting position in its evolution. It has outstanding leadership. President Duane Nellis is a very effective leader, and what impresses me the most is the determination of the people here to excel and to really make the research program stronger. The opportunity to really expand the university’s research mission in a very short period of time is very attractive to me. Lubbock is a wonderful place to live, and the people here are genuinely friendly and supportive of others who are moving into the area.

What is your vision for research at Texas Tech?

Texas Tech is a very successful place in many ways. It has had a huge expansion of the student body; there are a lot of brilliant young minds who are excited to work with the faculty in ways that will expand their knowledge through experiential learning. I can see us expanding greatly the amount of sponsored research from federal agencies and from the state. We’ll also expand translational opportunities to develop new commercialized technologies based upon the knowledge discoveries we make. It is interesting because the technical basis of our trillion-dollar industries today weren’t even thought of 30 years ago, and the trillion-dollar industries of 30 years from today probably have not been thought of yet. This process of discovering new knowledge and figuring out how to translate these discoveries into new commercial opportunities is exhilarating, exciting and fun. The process is also very inclusive. It not only gets our faculty more engaged with the national and international agenda, it also gets their students and our entire academic community actively engaged, as well.

How do the creative arts, social sciences and humanities fit into your research vision?

Oh, they are so important, because one thing that we have learned is that the most profound and interesting new technologies will have very little value to society unless people find them useful in their lives. Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, made this very clear. Where other people were thinking maybe the future was about making a desktop computer with a little bit more speed, or a little bit less costly to purchase, Steve Jobs realized that no, it’s really about making the computer intuitively useful to the way people organize their lives, and how they extend their capabilities in their daily work. This is an example of how technology is not really valuable until it’s humanized. More than that, I think that we all look for meaning in our lives through our ability to be of service to one another. I would say that the humanities provide at least two very important research directions: One is their intrinsic value, the profound enjoyment and enrichment of our lives that the arts provide. This makes life worth living, and it makes our interactions with each other more exciting. It makes the expression of many deep thoughts and profound concerns and emotions possible. The humanities also have a huge role to play in advancing our economic condition. Incorporating technology in a way that advances the human condition instead of standing in the way of it is quite important.

Are you a fan of the arts?

I really do enjoy all the arts. There are certain styles and genres that I like better than others, but I’ve never found any genre that I dislike. I find it all very engaging. The way in which a really clever expression can suddenly change the way people think is amazing. It is interesting that no one remembers a profound list of things a professor wrote on the chalkboard, but something that moves you in the lyrics of a song can stick in your mind so that you can repeat them almost immediately. It is remarkable how the arts can bring the meaning of things home like nothing else. I’ve been very concerned that some groups in our society say that the humanities are not important, and that they should not be supported through federal funding. I could not disagree more with that statement. Consider the popularity and importance of intellectual tourism to our economy. People are fascinated with how our democracy evolved to where it is today, they are fascinated by the natural history of the earth, and they are fascinated by some of our most flamboyant leaders throughout history, and of course they are fascinated by many other things, as well. A number of universities have started bringing professors together with inquisitive vacationers to create knowledge-based tourism. I went on a tour in the Galapagos with professors from MIT and the University of Chicago. We were on a National Geographic ship and as we toured the area, people who study Darwinism were there to describe the significance of that wonderful place in the history of biology, evolution and scientific discovery. Maybe we can involve our faculty in all disciplines in something like this here at Texas Tech University. The Southwest has a huge and rich cultural identity all its own.

What is the biggest challenge you see facing Texas Tech in the short term?

Texas Tech is growing rapidly, and that brings with it both big opportunities and natural growing pains. I think that the plans that President Nellis has put into place are bold and a wonderful opportunity for us all. We’ll change a lot in the next few years, and President Nellis has hired me to help lead and manage that rapid rate of change. But change is always a little bit difficult to manage. One of the beautiful things about Texas Tech is the great trust-based relationships between people across the campus, in the City of Lubbock and throughout the whole West Texas region. That’s an extremely rare and valuable asset. As we do change and accelerate opportunities and bring more people into our community from around the world, managing that change in a way that preserves that trust and that interpersonal strength of our relationships is exceptionally important. I cannot imagine any great event throughout history ever occurred without trust and mutual benefit and respect for one another. I’m certain we’ll be able to accomplish our goals, and as we accelerate our opportunities, we must make sure we preserve the trust and warmth that’s so characteristic of our region.

You’re a physicist. How did you get interested in physics?

As a kid I was really lost between the ears from an early age. I was deeply into amateur radio, and I got my license when I was 11. My interest in electronics led to an interest in physics. More broadly, from a very early age, I was very interested in how things worked. I hate to say it, and I know this doesn’t help me out very much at cocktail parties, but I really love to study math and physics. Normally that makes people think that I’m strange, but these disciplines are genuinely fascinating. When you can convey why you are excited by the STEM disciplines, then you can excite your students. It’s just remarkable how Texas Tech has expanded its student body. Every faculty member who I’ve talked to is a really dedicated educator, dedicated to making sure that they inspire their students. Our extramural research mission, and the opportunities that this provides for experiential learning for our students, is just outstanding. So I see research being very much part of an integrated academic program that inspires and motivates our students to achieve great heights as they follow their natural curiosity. This curiosity can be disciplined through careful and systematic study, and that can lead to discoveries that our next generation technologies will be based upon.

Will you continue to be an active researcher?

I will stay active somewhat in physics as I have been for the last five years as vice chancellor for research at Missouri. I will continue to be a member of the World Federation of Scientists and to publish with that group. I will also remain active and co-publish with the Sidney Kimmel Institute for Nuclear Renaissance, which I helped establish two years ago. But clearly my primary duty is my service role to the university, and my duties as part of President Nellis’ leadership team. My main responsibility is to make sure that the faculty can accomplish their own research endeavors successfully, and in the process of doing so, they motivate and inspire their students and create an excellent educational environment. I need to make sure that the byproducts of the research mission, specifically our trademarks, patents, and the intellectual property that we develop, really benefit the new knowledge-based economy that is so important to our livelihood today.

What is your research?

My area is called low-temperature physics, which concerns how matter behaves at extremely low temperatures near ‘absolute zero,’ which is -273°C or -459°F. You may have heard of superconductivity, which is how certain metals lose all their electrical resistance and expel magnetic fields when they get very cold. Other materials do similar things. Liquid helium, for example, becomes what we call a superfluid near absolute zero. It loses all resistance to fluid and heat flow when it gets very cold. These are examples of quantum fluids, and understanding these fluids and how quantum phenomena enter in at very low temperatures has been the subject of my own research. These research results have lead to a number of other interesting opportunities to understand natural phenomena more broadly. There is such commonality in the organizing principles in physics that when you discover such an organizing principle in one system, then you often find that it is at play in many others. For example, when we drive a superfluid far away from equilibrium, it displays fascinating new phenomena that are important in helping us understand many other things, such as cosmology and certain aspects of nuclear physics. Making these connections and understanding them is very exciting.

How has your research experience helped you to be a better administrator?

An important concept in the natural sciences is called ‘self similarity.’ Many structures in nature are fractal, meaning if you zoom in on any small part of the structure, then it looks quite similar to the overall structure before you zoomed in. Incidentally, in mathematics the power-law function is the only closed-form function that is self-similar. I think self-similarity is a very important concept in administration, as well. If you develop an administrative structure that works well in the executive leadership of the university, then many of those same administrative principles will also work well at the college and departmental levels. Scientific research requires objective reasoning and evidence-based, data-driven decision-making. These principles are also the key to making sound decisions in the administration of large organizations such as TTU.

What do you enjoy doing outside of work?

I enjoy spending time with my wife, Annie Sobel (Annette Sobel, M.D., executive for strategic health security initiatives at Texas Tech University, with joint appointment at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center). We like to hike and to ride our tandem bicycle. In the winter we enjoy snow shoeing and skiing. We just love being outdoors, and we both enjoy learning about nature. We collect fossils and geodes. I collect and repair antique radios because I’ve always been interested in how radio and electronic engineering evolved over the last eighty years.

So what’s still on your bucket list?

Well, mainly a return to many fun things that I used to do. I used to be a private pilot. Someday I’d like to get back into flying again, maybe even try gliding. I really enjoy flying, but I got away from it when I got so busy. Also, I don’t look like it, but I used to run 100-mile races back when I was active in the ultra-running circuit. I’ve always been one of the heaviest runners, so they very politely developed a new name for heavy runners called the ‘Clydesdale class.’ I like that name, since they could have called it the ‘Pachyderm class’ or something like that. As I get settled in here, I’m very much interested in getting back in good physical shape and returning to ultra-marathons. My strategy in ultra-marathons is simply to start really slow and taper.

Is there anything else you would like people to know about you?

I’d like people to know that Annie and I are really excited to be here, and we’re excited to part of the Texas Tech family. We so greatly appreciate the warm reception we’ve received in Lubbock. I’m a very collaborative person, and that is the basis of my leadership style. I always say, ‘It’s not who’s right, but what’s right.’ We have to figure out the best and most effective way to accelerate the opportunities, prosperity, and the quality of life for us all, and then the path forward is clear.

 

Sally Logue Post is Director of Research & Academic Communications for the Office of the Vice President for Research at Texas Tech University. Image courtesy of Neal Hinkle.

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