3Qs: Where does innovation come from? Often, the lunchroom

J. Murray Gibson, the founding dean of Northeastern’s new College of Science, came to the university from Argonne National Laboratory, where, as the director of Advanced Photon Source, he was the intellectual driver for major initiatives such as the Center for Nanoscale Materials. Here, the dean discusses his goals for research and teaching, and how Northeastern should be the best in the world in certain areas of science.

What attracted you to Northeastern?

The fact that the University is open to new ideas and new directions made the position very exciting. There’s an openness to change that appealed to me; people aren’t just saying, “The way we used to do it is good enough for me.” You don’t hear that too often here. Also, the experiential education and co-op program intrigued me. And of course, the location was very attractive.

Elevating the college’s research profile is a priority. What do you have in mind for this area?

We are going through a planning process in the college to develop goals and strategies, and there are several givens.

One is that we can’t do everything, because research is very expensive. So we need to ask, “What are the good ideas that make sense for us?” We must aim to be the best in the world at what we do, so we have to think strategically.

The second is about partnerships. We need to plan with the idea of developing strengths that no one else has.But the planning is also about teaching. Technology offers us opportunities to change the way we deliver education, not just by developing online delivery, but also exploring the use of machines as a tool to evaluate and guide student work. Machines cannot replace humans. They can free up our faculty to provide students with the greater benefits of their intellectual creativity, knowledge, and advice.

You mentioned that we need to offer something no one else has. Please expand on that thought.

Let’s take one example. What if we were to make the Marine Science Center the leading place in the world for urban coastal research? There are many globally changing challenges that relate to cities on the ocean: environmental issues, commercial sustainability issues, port security. As we establish leadership in those areas, institutions in those cities and countries will want to work with us. They will need to work with us. That would be my strategy, to be the kind of place where people need to come to us.

That touches on a core part of our research mission, interdisciplinary partnership. How does that fit into your strategy?

I’m a very strong believer in interdisciplinary research, but also in the need for disciplines. As the president says, they’re like languages. You have to speak one, at least. But past the undergraduate level, we have to break down the barriers, because most of the interesting problems do lie at the disciplinary boundaries.

When two people with different disciplinary strengths—biology and psychology, for example—look at the same problem, they may come up with a question that neither one of them could have asked. That is the essence of interdisciplinary work.

While we do it very well here, we need to do better, and one way to advance this goal is to ask our faculty, seriously, “Where do you have lunch?” At Bell Laboratories, where I worked, the lunchroom was a crucible where people in different disciplines mingled and talked. Many of the ideas that made Bell famous have their origins in those casual conversations. We need to develop something analogous here.

In this same context, you’ve talked about the importance of building clusters of researchers. Can you explain?

As we’re building up our research profile in areas of strength, we want as much as possible to create teams of people who have to work together, like my example of the Marine Science Center, because they each have something the other one needs.

That’s really the key to our strategic plan. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have very strong individual researchers; it just underscores the need for them to be complementary—the whole is much more than the sum of the parts. If we’re going to be the best in the world in certain areas, we’re going to have to be very clever about our larger-scale investments.

How does research affect classroom education?

The impact on graduate studies is pretty obvious: Graduate students want to go where the best researchers are. But research is very important for undergraduate education. You can’t teach something without doing it, and doing science is research. Without it, you can’t teach science properly, no matter how good a teacher you are. Our cutting-edge research faculty have precious knowledge to pass on to undergraduates, and it goes both ways: Bright undergraduates bring new ideas and energy that I, for one, find very stimulating.

What will your role be in building up co-op?

More than half of our students are doing co-op in science, and I would like to see this increase. Co-op is key to our uniqueness, and we must build on it. One tactic is to introduce more research-oriented co-ops, within the University and at research institutions in industry, other universities, hospitals, and in national laboratories around the world. Global research co-ops have great potential because science is so very international.

Your charge as dean is to be an academic innovator. How do you view that task?

To me, leadership is mostly common sense; you just need the courage to make choices.  Saying yes to everyone doesn’t do anyone favors — you need to invest strategically.

The faculty are the intellectual drivers at a university, so common sense says, attract and retain the best faculty, and empower them together to do wonderful things.

In the same way, in our new budget management model, all of the deans have been empowered to do some things without permission, using their own resources. That’s great; sometimes you don’t want to tell your boss what you want to do, because some of the best ideas sound really stupid at first.

The deans are working closely together, seeking win-win situations; we all understand the importance of collaboration and inter-college connections. The incentives are there and the ability to do things more nimbly is there. It’s a great recipe for innovation.