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Cultivating Excellence

January 4, 2018

Endowed professorships help attract and retain the best faculty, leading to distinction in research, teaching and service.

By Micaela Myers

Ask top students at the University of Wyoming what made the biggest difference in their college careers, and most will say their professors. From teaching to research to service, faculty members are at the core of carrying out UW’s mission.

One way to attract and retain top faculty is through endowed chair positions. As part of UW’s five-year strategic plan, the university plans to increase the number of endowed faculty from 36 to 60 by 2022, including adding new categories of professorships, such as distinguished professorships or state engagement professorships.

Endowed chairs come with additional income that can supplement salaries, student research, travel expenses, and outreach or exploratory research.

“Those are all enhancements to the overall academic environment for us,” says Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Kate Miller. An endowed title also comes with influence and prestige.

Traditional endowed chairs are well-established researchers. However, UW wants to add chairs that recognize outstanding teaching and service or engagement.

“We have the tripartite mission of research, teaching and service, so why shouldn’t we recognize outstanding efforts in teaching and engagement and also help support those kinds of activities through the proceeds of the endowment?” Miller says.

Support for endowed chairs comes from the Wyoming Excellence in Higher Education Endowment, state appropriations, public-private partnerships and private donors. To highlight the work being done by endowed chairs across campus, you can read about four faculty members on the following pages.

woman gesturing at book and talking to student
Cynthia Brock, the Wyoming Excellence in Higher Education Endowed Chair in Literacy Education, works with graduate student Adeline Borti.

Cynthia Brock, Wyoming Excellence in Higher Education Endowed Chair in Literacy Education

Brock was living and working in Australia when she heard about the endowed literacy education chair at UW, a position that involves a great deal of work around Wyoming. “This job is an incredible privilege, and I feel very honored to be here,” she says. “One of the things that attracted me most to this position is that I get to work with wonderful literacy colleagues. Secondly, I get to work with people from around the state who care very much about the literacy education of Wyoming children. It’s work that matters to the children we serve.”

Brock uses her endowment for travel and work across the state, as well as to support doctoral students and faculty development.

Started prior to her appointment at UW, Brock recently completed research for a three-year $721,731 Australian federal grant under which she and her fellow researchers studied the development of a collaborative community approach to support preschoolers’ vernacular and English language and literacy development in Fijian communities without access to early childhood services. Insights gleaned from the collaborative process studied on the Fiji grant have been invaluable in the collaborations that Brock and her UW colleagues are doing with teachers and administrators in schools and community literacy organizations in Wyoming. Work on the Fiji grant has also lead to a collaborative in-progress international grant between UW, the Teton Literacy Center in Wyoming, the University of South Australia and the City West Child Care Center in Adelaide, South Australia, where Brock and her colleagues are studying how children’s literacy learning functions within their native languages as well as across their native languages and English.

Brock and her colleagues also worked with educators in Fremont County for several years on a teacher quality grant providing courses and resources to teachers in the county.

“We spend a lot of time working in various communities and in different capacities,” Brock says of her current work. Unlike past traditional professor roles, her endowed chair position encourages extensive statewide outreach and engagement.

“One of the things that speaks to me in my current position is the value that’s placed on education in the state of Wyoming,” she says. “In the two years I’ve been here, I’ve been absolutely blown away by how much people in Wyoming value education. And the fact that the Wyoming State Legislature decided to fund endowed chairs to focus on education in the state—I think it’s really impressive.”

man working with high tech lab equipment
Stephen Ford, the Curtis and Marian Rochelle Endowed Chair in Animal Science, conducts research for the Center for the Study of Fetal Programming.

Stephen Ford, Curtis and Marian Rochelle Endowed Chair in Animal Science

After he spent 23 years at Iowa State University, the endowed chair position at UW allowed Ford the opportunity to establish the Center for the Study of Fetal Programming. “That was a new initiative for the university—studying the fetal origins of adult disease,” he says. “There’s a large body of scientific evidence now that suggests that malnutrition of mothers leads to alterations of health in their offspring, which can carry on postnatally and actually go across generations. This center is the only one in the United States studying the impact of maternal under- and over-nutrition on offspring health and well-being postnally using livestock as a biomedical model for human infants. Bill Gern, the now retired vice president for research and economic development, invested in my program, which has resulted in significant external funding and publications in the area.”

Obesity is an epidemic in the United States and worldwide, and animal models were needed to study it. “We’ve found that overfed obese pregnancies in sheep, as in humans, result in offspring which exhibit overeating, increased adiposity, insulin resistance, cardiovascular disease and other associated metabolic diseases,” Ford says. “Further, we have found that these negative traits are passed along from daughters to granddaughters and even great-granddaughters, even if their mothers ate normally during pregnancy and remained lean. We are currently studying mechanisms whereby these negative health traits are passed across generations.”

Ford also continues to teach at the undergraduate and graduate level, as well as interact with faculty and students throughout the UW campus and beyond. “It gave me a lot more flexibility in what I could do,” he says of his chair.

Funding from his chair position helps cover travel expenses and seminars, and the chair itself gives visibility to the Department of Animal Science, Ford says. He adds that endowed chairs bring in new ideas and techniques and can pull faculty members together to discover new areas of research.

man standing at whiteboard
Charles Mason, the H.A. True Jr. Chair in Petroleum and Natural Gas Economics, teaches his graduate-level class in advanced gaming theory.

Charles Mason, H.A. True Jr. Chair in Petroleum and Natural Gas Economics

Mason came to UW in 1982, drawn to the economics department by its strength in environmental resource economics. In 2007, he was named the True Chair. The chair is endowed through a gift from the True Oil family in Casper, aimed at supporting research and education. The endowment led to the development of an undergraduate class taught in oil and gas economics, which Mason created from the ground up and thoroughly enjoys teaching.

“It’s grown by a factor of 125 percent,” he says of the class. “It obviously resonates with students. It’s good for them, for the True family and for me.”

Mason’s research program is largely centered on studying oil and gas markets. One of his current research projects, part of the National Bureau of Economic Research’s working group on hydrocarbon infrastructure, is studying the role of rail shipments of crude oil, particularly from isolated places such as the Bakken and West Texas. A second project examines what motivates the holding of crude oil inventories. These topics have clear relevance to the energy sector of the state and policy relevance to the nation. His research also allows him to regularly update the oil and gas class, enhancing the educational value and relevance of the class.

Mason believes the endowed chair position opens doors and lends credibility. His endowment is used for research and teaching. He also keeps busy overseeing graduate students, participating in conferences, publishing papers and serving as the associate dean in the College of Business.

Mason gives endowed professors the credit for his department’s rise in the 1970s and says they have attracted scores of graduate students ever since.

“You could imagine a world without endowed chairs would be a shadow of its former self,” he says. “It’s a magnet upon which all kinds of great things can be developed.”

man sitting at desk
School of Energy Resources Assistant Professor Dario Grana’s research focuses on petrophysical modeling and characterization of hydrocarbon reservoirs using geophysical methods.

Dario Grana, School of Energy Resources Assistant Professor of Geology and Geophysics

In addition to the Excellence in Higher Education Endowment and privately endowed chairs, state appropriations targeted toward faculty positions in legislatively identified areas of priority—including those in the School of Energy Resources—have also benefitted distinguished and up-and-coming faculty at UW.

Grana came to UW in 2013, drawn to the Department of Geology and Geophysics for its excellent reputation and opportunities for collaborations with well-known scientists. He also appreciated the position’s balance between teaching and research.

“At the beginning of my career at UW, I received state funding from the School of Energy Resources to start my research program and form a research group,” Grana says. “After a year at UW, my research group could already count on two master’s students, two Ph.D. students and one postdoc. My group made a significant progress in improving reservoir characterization and quantifying uncertainty in reservoir predictions, and the results were published in peer-reviewed journals and presented at several international conferences.”

Grana co-wrote the book Seismic Reflections of Rock Properties, published by Cambridge University Press. He is also the recipient of the 2017 EAGE Arie van Weelden Award, the 2016 SEG J. Clarence Karcher Award, the 2015 Mathematical Geosciences Best Paper Award and the 2014 Eni Award for New Frontiers of Hydrocarbons, together with Tapan Mukerji, Gary Mavko and Jack Dvorkin (Stanford University).

Grana’s research focuses on petrophysical modeling and characterization of hydrocarbon reservoirs using geophysical methods, such as seismic data. Seismic reservoir characterization aims to build 3-D reservoir models of rock and fluid properties. Such models are used to estimate the hydrocarbon reserves in the subsurface and to predict the hydrocarbon production of the field. This research also aims to quantify the uncertainty in the predictions and to assess the risks associated with exploration and production of the field. Grana’s other research projects include the geophysical monitoring of the reservoirs using repeated seismic surveys and the updating of models using production data to reduce the uncertainty in the reserve production forecast.

Grana has established successful collaborations with oil companies in the Unites States and Europe, and his research has already been applied in several case studies all over the world, including a CO2 sequestration project in southeast Wyoming.

“[The collaborations] have enabled our graduate students to work with real data and grasp a broader view of the modeling problems in practical applications,” Grana says. “Many undergraduate and graduate students in exploration geophysics aim to work in oil and gas companies, so such collaborations are extremely beneficial for their future careers. The interaction with the industry also helps me to identify new research directions. Indeed, several fundamental scientific questions can arise from a specific practical problem proposed by an oil company.”

With UW aiming to nearly double the number of endowed faculty members in the next five years, the benefits to research, teaching and outreach at the university will continue to grow, positively impacting students and the state.

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