Texas Tech University

Q&A with VPR Joseph Heppert

By: Sally Logue Post 

Meet Texas Tech Vice President for Research, Joseph Heppert

Joe Heppert became Texas Tech University's vice president of research on Sept. 18. He comes to Texas Tech from the University of Kansas where he was associate vice chancellor for the Office of Research.

A professor of chemistry and former director of the KU Center for Science Education, Heppert was involved in the oversight of several centers at Kansas since beginning his tenure in Lawrence in 1985. He was elected chair of the chemistry department in 2005 and named a fellow of the American Chemical Society in 2012. Heppert holds an undergraduate degree in chemistry from San Jose State University and a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry from the University of Wisconsin.

While still brand new to Texas Tech, Dr. Heppert shared a few thoughts with Discoveries about what attracted him to the Red Raider family and what he sees as the future of research at the university.

What was it about Texas Tech that attracted you after more than 30 years at the University of Kansas?

Texas Tech is a great university with great tradition and loyal alumni. The institution is poised to make a real transition and to dramatically improve its research profile. It's clear to me that the chancellor, president and provost are all behind the concept that one of the key characteristics for Texas Tech's future growth is the enhancement of the research effort. Given the potential here, all this makes Texas Tech a very exciting place to be.

One of the things that speaks volumes about how effective Texas Tech has been, particularly over the past five years, is that the university has been very successful in recruiting high quality faculty members such as national academy members, to the institution. It's incredibly impressive, and I think this is evidence that the institution is poised to move up.

joseph heppert
Joseph Heppert

From my initial interactions with faculty and leadership I see a hunger to improve the institution. I believe there will be faculty leadership in all areas. This is a partnership. This is not one person or one office imposing some kind of change on the university. It really has to be something we all work for together. 

The dedicated alumni are another opportunity. My initial interaction with the community and the region shows that they are behind seeing an enhancement of research activity. It's clear they view Texas Tech as a potential partner in economic development activities as well as other kinds of activities that support not just economic development, but human development as well. 

I know there is a desire for greater partnership with the Texas Tech University Health Science Center and there is recognition that we can together create greater competitiveness and excitement around research projects than either of us could do alone.

 What is your vision for research at Texas Tech?

I think one thing to emphasize is that the label research doesn't always capture everything that we do as an institution. It can't. We're involved in research, but also creative activity within the arts and scholarly activity within the humanities and the social sciences.

We should have a 360-degree vision of the impact of our scholarly and creative activity, not just a perspective that's inward looking. We must think about all the ways our research, creative activity and scholarship can impact the entire community.

Improving the scope, quality and recognition of what we do in research is incredibly important for the faculty. It is the key factor that will take recognition of faculty achievement to the next level and help them to advance their careers. Secondarily, faculty recognition also helps us to recruit better faculty with each generation. I'm not saying our current faculty aren't exceptional, but I can say that after over 30 years in an academic department, I was proud of the fact that with each successive generation of faculty hires, we were hiring people who were more capable and whose research was more exciting.

I think we also have to recognize, as a modern research university, you can't decouple our research and the education missions. That combination is part of the reason that undergraduate students will have an exceptional educational experience coming to Texas Tech. Students here will have the opportunity to work with people who are at the forefront of their scholarly fields. This puts students in a situation that better prepares them for their future careers.

Enhancing our national standing is also beneficial for the region and the state. In the long run it helps bolster the university's economic development mission. Increasing our research profile helps foster collaborations with industry that can benefit from the expertise our faculty bring to the table. The more innovative the technologies our faculty develop, the greater chance we're going to create spin off companies that will grow up in this area and benefit the regional economy.

The bottom line is one of the things we must do in order to scale the university's research mission is to increase the amount of our externally funded research. Don't get me wrong, not everything we do and not everything we value has to bring in external dollars. But those external dollars help us grow the scope of what we can do by expanding the range of the scholarly and creative programs we can support as an institution.

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

It is important to acknowledge that the vast majority of outstanding public research universities foster and support excellence in creative arts, humanities and in social sciences, in addition to building excellence in science, mathematics, technology and engineering. The humanities, arts and social sciences are areas of scholarly activity that reflect the human experience in a unique and very important way. They express our understanding of what it is to be human, so naturally they are disciplines that universities need to support and foster.

Texas Tech has great strength in these areas and we need to support those strengths. We also need to encourage faculty in these and other scholarly disciplines to reach out and create collaborations among different departments and disciplines on campus. There are wonderful opportunities, for example, for some disciplines in the social sciences to become deeply engaged not only with collaborative activity on campus but also with research and scholarly activity embedded in the communities and region surrounding the university as well.

One thing I want to point out is that I've had a number of collaboration with the social sciences over the past decade and a half, so I appreciate some of the challenges and opportunities of building scholarly activity in these areas.

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

Competition.  All research universities are looking for opportunities to grow right now, but all of us are sailing into a headwind. Federal funding has fallen over the past decade. In addition, the current administration has recommended some pretty steep, direct cuts in research programs funded by federal agencies.

What Texas Tech needs to do is think very carefully about investments in research areas that will truly differentiate us from other institutions around the country. Or where we have particular strengths that we can bring to the table in collaborations with other universities, both in Texas and in other states. These are the ways we're going to create a competitive advantage in the research effort. So, to some degree over the next year or two, we'll be thinking and talking about where we can really differentiate Texas Tech research from other universities.

A second challenge is regulation. One of the things that will help Texas Tech's research effort grow is having more faculty engaged in externally funded scholarly activity. At the same time, we're asking already productive faculty to cope with an increasing regulatory and accountability burden. We've been dealing with regulations for a long time in areas such as human subjects, conflict of interest and animal research, but there are also emerging areas of regulation, like export controls. One of the jobs of the research office is to work with faculty to try to streamline the administration of these regulations and minimize the hurdles faculty have to face in conducting their research.

Another challenge, and it's really as much an opportunity as it is a challenge, is economic development. Historically, universities have been thought of by private sector partners as difficult to work with. Sometimes this is because of what how states regulate our relationships with corporate partners. Sometimes it results from how universities approach the management of our intellectual property. And sometimes it is because all three partners in this triple helix—government, universities, and the private sector—are somewhat out of step with each other. I believe there is a consensus that all public universities need to develop strategies to streamline and simplify both the process of licensing intellectual property, and our processes for establishing collaborative research with industry partners. TTU wants to develop the reputation of being an even more transparent and supportive partner for industry in the areas of research and technology transfer.

In this context and in the face of federal funding cuts, it's critically important that we seek to diversify support of our scholarly activity. We want to see more industry funded research on our campus. We want to see more opportunity for technologies that are truly marketable to be licensed so that revenues can come back to the institution to support not only the investigators, but also the research mission of the institution.

Finally another challenge is convincing stakeholders, and by that I mean virtually everyone that we deal with, of the value of public research universities. We're facing proposed funding cuts to federal research funding, as well as the idea that the federal government may be reluctant to reimburse the resources that universities and states expend to support federally funded research. Both of these actions would have a devastating impact on public research universities. So, we have to be much better about communicating internally to our faculty and staff researchers, and externally to the public, our private sector partners, and state and federal policy makers about the terrific return on investment this system has created for U.S. taxpayers. The impact over the past 50 years has been tremendous. Technologically, we are the most competitive nation in the world. And yet, if we want to stay that way, it's important for the federal government to sustain its investments in research, and for states like Texas to continue their strong historical support for public research universities.

You're a chemist. How did you get interested in chemistry?

I have to go back to the chemistry set I had when I was a 7-year-old and seeing the colors change. I think the main thing that motivated me to become a chemistry teacher and researcher was the fact that I had some excellent teachers who were role models and really interpreted the discipline in a way that made it exciting for me.

As I started to get experience in research I really understood the excitement of working with atoms and molecules, particularly molecules that nobody had ever worked with, making brand new compounds, understanding their properties and their reactivity. As a faculty member for the past 32 years at a research university, helping students come into the lab and have those same types of experiences, those same realizations about what they can do and what they can find that no one else has found before is something I've been very passionate about.

What are your research interests?

I have gone through different stages in my research. I started out as an organometallic chemist. That field works with organic compounds that contain metal-carbon bonds. Compounds containing these bonds are important to society because they allow us to take hydrocarbon materials like ethylene, propylene, benzene or other hydrocarbon feedstocks and transform them into different kinds of molecules. Many of the products we use today are created by catalysts containing metal-carbon bonds. Understanding the fundamental properties of these bonds and getting different kinds of reactivity out of them is a pathway toward creating new chemicals for different purposes.

A second thing I've worked on quite a bit, and still have graduate students actively working on, is chemical education. Our broad focus has been on understanding how we teach chemistry and how we can change instruction to reach a broader range of students and help them succeed in their study of science. For so many years, people have said that chemistry is one of those disciplines that is a barrier to them going further in science. We don't want that. We want to find better ways to interpret chemistry so people can learn it and apply it in other fields like biology.

Third is understanding the economics of the investment in chemistry. I recently held a three-year NSF grant working with colleagues in economics to study how the inputs of federal dollars into academic chemistry laboratories over the last 20-25 years has created output in terms of patents and new technologies.

Will you continue your research?

I will continue some of it. Frankly, my philosophy is that when you move into a position like this and you want to create significant change and really work with a wide variety of constituencies across the institution, it's a full-time job. I've been in various aspects of research administration for seven years now and I can say that while it has been rewarding to help people increase their research activity, every year has been a blow to my personal research activity. That is not at all uncommon.

What do you enjoy doing outside of work?

I do a few things. I like to bicycle a lot, it's partially therapy and partially exercise. I do a lot of volunteer work with my professional society. I've been involved in a number of programs with the American Chemical Society and have chaired several committees. My wife and I started some community outreach activities at the University of Kansas. We organized an event we called “the Carnival of Chemistry” in the early 1990s. It is an opportunity for elementary and middle school students to come into the teaching labs and do some hands-on science. Typically, it brings about 800 children onto the campus every year. The program is still going on today.