A Commitment to Research: Part 1…the Wake of a Budget Crisis

In this first installment of a three part series, guest blogger Dr. Jenny Dahl talks about the challenges she and husband Dr. Bart Dahl have faced in mentoring undergraduate research in the wake of a budget crisis, solving the two-body problem and working toward tenure.


The Beginning

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“We were excited to return to our home state and raise our family while emulating… strong classroom instruction and research experiences”

My husband and colleague, Dr. Bart Dahl, were delighted to accept tenure-track positions at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in 2010. After a decade of navigating the two-body problem (more on this in our next installment), we had found a university that was a perfect fit: UWEC has a stellar reputation for leading undergraduate research; the combined instrumentation of the Department of Chemistry and the Materials Science and Engineering Center offers great support for chemical synthesis and nanoscience research; the liberal arts model is highly valued here; and best of all, it is a part of the UW System, the same network of public higher education in which Bart and I first earned our bachelor’s degrees in Chemistry. We were so excited to return to our home state and raise our family while emulating the strong classroom instruction and research experiences that the talented professors of UW-Oshkosh had extended to us back when we were burgeoning new scientists.

 

The Cut

Bart and I immersed ourselves in the multifaceted initiative of the new faculty member: building our shared research lab, mentoring our talented undergraduate researchers, teaching and developing new courses, engaging in outreach and service, writing grant proposals and publishing our work with students. We love our university, and it has proven to be fertile ground for our development as teacher-scholars.image022

After an unforeseeable turn of events in Wisconsin, the news of the University of Wisconsin System’s historic budget cut emerged from behind closed doors in January 2015. Hushed hallway conversations amongst my colleagues carried heightened tones of fear and speculation, some of which were occasionally batted down by cavalier disbelief.

“…the news of the University of Wisconsin System’s historic budget cut emerged from behind closed doors in January 2015.”

Later in that same month, our Chancellor called for a meeting of the campus community. Bart and I packed into a standing-room-only lecture hall for the first of several conversations about the magnitude of the cut in state allocations to the UW System, as proposed by Governor Scott Walker’s administration. The initial figure of $300 million was unfathomable, and it was difficult to imagine the consequences to one of our nation’s greatest public university systems.

Bart and I were both pre-tenure, assistant professors at the time. The following weeks saw many nights of little sleep, our thoughts continually returning to fear and anxiety for our careers, our family’s livelihood, and the university system in which we proudly serve. Because of our long history as both students and educators within the UW System, the cuts signaled more than possible loss of a job; it challenged our perception of life in Wisconsin in a way that felt rather personal. After all, this was a cut to the public education system where our families were educated as well. Within our immediate family, the UW-System has educated physicians, research scientists, nurses, engineers, federal agents, teachers, and law enforcement officers. We could hardly understand why our legislature would take steps to weaken the primary vehicle of economic mobility and development in our state.

All of these losses forced us to ponder an impossible question: how can you do more with less?

When the governor signed the final biennium budget bill later that summer, the real consequences of the cut became clear. The UW System was denied $250 million in state funding, decreasing the base budget on my campus by $7.7 million. After a series of retirements, resignations, and non-renewal of staff positions, we lost 179 faculty and staff positions, about 15% of our workforce. Teaching loads were increased, class sizes were increased, many elective courses were discontinued, and all of the University’s reserves were spent to save as many faculty positions as possible in order to best serve our students.

The UW System was denied $250 million in state funding…Teaching loads were increased, class sizes were increased…and all of the University’s reserves were spent…

All of these losses forced us to ponder an impossible question: how can you do more with less? Our faculty had already been contemplating this problem and living the solutions for years, and most had surpassed the peak “do more” era. Going forward, we must now focus our efforts through different lenses, namely, those of impact and sustainability. Which practices have the greatest impacts on our students’ quality of education and outcomes? Of those, which are the most practicable and sustainable? I believe that, as a primarily undergraduate institution, maintaining high-quality student education is our compass in unchartered territory, and virtually all of my colleagues share this sentiment.

What are we doing here?

Bart and I were fortunate to retain our positions at UWEC after the cut. Once the fear of a job loss passed, we had more time to think about how much we benefitted from our education at UW-Oshkosh, and how the faculty there opened our imaginations to careers and opportunities that we wouldn’t have considered on our own. Undergraduate research profoundly enhanced my education by allowing me to place my coursework in a broader context, and the accurate portrayal of scientific investigations shaped my desire to someday lead my own research program.

Undergraduate research profoundly enhanced my education…And this is why we are still here- because we want to be a springboard for our students

image019And this is why we are still here- because we want to be a springboard for our students, too. We want our students to pursue advanced degrees, serve in the medical industry, become innovators and industrial leaders, to solve the energy crisis, to educate the next cohort of scientists. We want the gifts we’ve received as students to propagate through our roles as educators, bolstering the economy and our way of life.

How we’re still here

Bart and I share a synthesis lab at UWEC, allowing us to pool our resources in order to maximize the work of our students. Though we maintain separate and unique research goals, all equipment is common to members of our lab. Each year, we host a group of 10-12 undergraduate researchers: majors typically include chemistry, biology, and materials science; students of all class standing have worked with us (and as a matter of fact, the students who begin research as freshman are often the most successful); the students have diverse career aspirations.

Though we maintain separate and unique research goals, all equipment is common to members of our lab. Each year, we host a group of 10-12 undergraduate researchers…

Images created in the Material Science Center
Students and Dr. Jennifer Dahl work on cross-linked gold nanoparticle films

This summer, the major themes of my research include the spectroscopic characterization of covalently crosslinked films of Janus nanoparticles, a side project on greener recovery of noble metals from various nanomaterials, and a collaborative project that employs highly concentrated biocompatible nanoparticles as a medium for studying confined protein dynamics. Aside from synthesis, we spend a lot of time characterizing these materials with the combined instrumentation of the Chemistry Department and the Materials Science and Engineering Center.  Bart’s specialty is synthetic organic chemistry, and his group is focused on the synthesis of highly conjugated compounds with switchable geometries. The modular nature of these compounds gives rise to dynamic colors, fluorescence and electron transfer. Though our projects have little direct overlap, our students benefit from the exposure to research outside their nominal disciplines, and the vibrant social dynamic of our lab dispenses with the image of chemists as isolated, awkward “lab rats.”

Though our projects have little direct overlap, our students benefit from the exposure to research outside their nominal disciplines, and the vibrant social dynamic of our lab dispenses with the image of chemists as isolated, awkward “lab rats.”

image020Research, of course, requires money: faculty and student stipends, money for lab consumables and new equipment, money for travel to conferences, etc. Just as the global energy crisis is unlikely to be solved by a single technology, our fiscal needs can’t be met by a single source of funding. This year, our lab is supported by the UW System’s Regent Scholar Award, the McNair Scholars program, and funds provided by the student-elected Differential Tuition Fund at UWEC. (Yes, you read that right- our students choose to pay extra tuition in order to fund high-impact practices at our university. Our students and their families know that the value of these experiences far exceeds the added cost of differential tuition.) In the past, we have drawn on the support of Research Corporation, the ACS Petroleum Research Fund, various NSF programs, and WiSys, the UW System’s technology transfer agency.

I am proud to see well-trained new scientists graduate from our lab every year, as they are the most valuable product of my research…

And so, here we stay

Our administration has worked hard to maintain the quality of undergraduate education at UWEC in the wake of budget cuts, and our Chancellor has set forth new institutional principles that align very well with the philosophies that Bart and I share as faculty. These principles include: 100% of students participating in a high-impact practice, 90% student retention, 50% of students graduating within four years, and a growth in student diversity, to at least 20% of our campus community. These numbers reflect the kind of university that will foster the development of teacher-scholars, educate our students with an eye towards managing the cost of a college degree, and serve a broader swath of the general population in a meaningful way. The numbers reflect a return to the UW System that I, and indeed our entire state, grew up with. History has shown that strengthening our public university system ultimately strengthens our economy: a liberally educated workforce is an adaptable workforce, capable of responding to major changes in our state industry. It has helped us to successfully navigate major transitions in agriculture, the lumber industry, machining, and the paper industry. A strong university system can steady any economy in times of boom and bust. I am proud to see well-trained new scientists graduate from our lab every year, as they are the most valuable product of my research, and I remain committed to bolstering public education as we move forward.


Dr. Jennifer Dahl and Dr. Bart Dahl are associate professors in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Their mentorship of students in the state of Wisconsin has been recognized: Dr. Bart Dahl received UWEC’s first Emerging Mentor Award, and Dr. Jennifer Dahl was named a Regent Scholar by the UW-System’s Board of Regents.

 

 

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