Penn State is one of the largest research universities in the world.
For several consecutive years, the university has pulled in more than $800 million annually in research dollars, with the lion’s share coming from federal sources like the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense and NASA.
That research happens in colleges from agricultural to engineering, plus specialized areas such as the Applied Research Lab, the Breazeale Nuclear Reactor and more. It’s also not all about science. Hey, artists and humanities professors do research, too.
All of them put Penn State brain power to work looking into things such as exploring glaciers, eliminating malaria and examining the way the brain forgets things, to name just a few projects the university talked about this week.
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That’s a lot to steer, but someone is at the wheel.
Neil Sharkey has had the task since August 2013. Earlier this month, President Eric Barron made it concrete, officially naming him vice president of research, helming a department with a $52.7 million operating budget and fingers in almost every pie in the university.
“Penn State has a longstanding tradition as a cutting-edge, world-class research university, and Neil has done a remarkable job of advancing Penn State’s standing as a leading research institution by exploring new ways for Penn State to make a difference both here in Pennsylvania and across the globe,” Barron said in his announcement. “Under Neil’s leadership, Penn State is leveraging its combined research and intellectual resources to bring innovative ideas and discoveries to market, thus driving job creation and economic growth.”
It was not the first time Barron had given Sharkey that task. Not long after taking over at Penn State in 2014, Barron unveiled a plan to increase innovation and maximize entrepreneurship. He gave responsibility for Invent Penn State to his acting head of research.
Sharkey doesn’t see the job as glamorous or powerful. He sees it as a service.
“My job is to enable faculty, staff and students to be as productive as they can be, to make our infrastructure as strong as possible,” he said. “It’s really the most important thing I can do.”
Sharkey’s office has been a key in another of Barron’s plans: to promote Penn State as the nation’s premiere university when it comes to energy research.
In 2015, Barron announced those plans, looking to build on the university’s already significant reputation in the area. Penn State is a top five school in five different areas in the field, including energy policy; fossil fuels and combustion; renewable and nuclear energy; distribution, efficiency grid, storage and smart building; and energy and the environment.
But looking forward, Sharkey sees other areas where he hopes to see the university leading, too. He wants to put effort into materials research, sustainability and biomedical technology.
“I think these are areas where Penn State can really grow, where we could add people and resources,” he said.
People are the key part for Sharkey, who says none of it works without the faculty, staff and students coming up with the ideas and doing the work to advance them.
“We are ... as good as our faculty,” he said. “We need to make sure that we have enough good people who have enough opportunities.”
He knows what it’s like to be on Penn State’s faculty. Sharkey joined the kinesiology department almost 20 years ago. He understands research, with his background in physiology and pathology. He still keeps a scalpel in his office, even though he’s more likely to dissect a contract than a biological sample these days.
What he is getting to know now is a different kind of hands-on learning: building the bridges that make Penn State a good partner for corporations or the community to build relationships. That comes back to both Invent Penn State and the university’s push toward entrepreneurship at both the faculty and student level.
“It’s a different world,” Sharkey said. “You have to be entrepreneurial as an individual.”
But it’s important, he knows, to have a team spirit, too. Science, said Sharkey, is all about building your idea onto the ideas that came ahead and hoping to have lightning strike.
“We’re all just a little piece of a bigger puzzle. And every now and then, something amazing happens,” he said.