Dean for research sounds like a big job at a research university with as much clout as Princeton. It is.
Pablo Debenedetti, who was named the prestigious university’s dean for research five years ago, handles a great deal. It’s just not a job that comes with a lot of publicity or notoriety.
But even though Debenedetti is scarcely quoted in media, he’s busy behind the scenes — working directly with Princeton’s provost and other senior leaders in encouraging the sort of innovation that has long made Princeton a world-renown campus for research.
ROI-NJ: Can you start off by highlighting some of the areas of research you’re most excited about at Princeton?
Pablo Debenedetti: One area we’re very strongly focusing on is bio-engineering, that is, the synthesis of life sciences and engineering. We have strengths in both those areas, but we also feel that we ought to strengthen the interface between them. So, that’s something we’re looking to do major investments in. There’s also the whole area of computational biology, which includes bioinformatics, functional genomics and other new areas. It’s very exciting for us.
Energy and the environment — I don’t need to explain why that’s important. We have a wonderful center called the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, where we’re leading research groups in carbon capture, climate modeling and energy storage. That’s going to be one of the priorities of Princeton going forward. We’re going to have a major initiative and a brand-new building to support this work.
Another area that is thriving today is the intersection of computer science and policy. We have a center for information technology policy and within that we just created a research consortium involving many organizations and corporate partners.
ROI: How much of research today is being driven by this trend of previously unseen university cross-collaboration?
PD: I don’t know how unprecedented it really is, but certainly collaborations these days are more pervasive than they’ve ever been. I would chalk that up to the fact that research takes place much more across boundaries once rigidly defined and made into disciplinary silos. Those silos, while necessary to define what a discipline is, have given way to the possibilities afforded by multidisciplinary research, such as data science.
The ability to process huge amounts of data brings together people who naturally have very diverse intellectual backgrounds, like people in life sciences, computer science or things having to do with bio-medical fields, or even political science. And the multidisciplinary research has provided opportunities for collaboration across universities. That’s a driving force.
But there are also stronger-than-ever opportunities for international collaboration, too. That collaboration can all be done via tools like Skype. Several years ago, it became clear that these collaborations were increasing with computer communications and information exchange, enhancing collaboration on research that once required face-to-face communication. Of course, on the international exchange we’re experiencing a challenging environment, which works against these new possibilities for collaboration.
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