Robert Kelley: a research legacy

January 20, 2016

by Juan Miguel Pedraza, University & Public Affairs writer


UND President Robert Kelley interacts with students in Biology Professor Susan Felege's lab. Kelley, who is retiring this week, is leaving a significant teaching and research legacy at UND. Photo by Shawna Schill.

UND President Robert Kelley interacts with students in Biology Professor Susan Felege’s lab. Kelley, who is retiring this week, is leaving a significant teaching and research legacy at UND. Photo by Shawna Schill.

UND’s 11th president – a career scientist – has overseen an unprecedented period of growth in creative activity and administrative support for new innovations on the UND campus and beyond.

Bob Kelley caught bug fever when he was just a child.

“During a family vacation, a park ranger at Yellowstone National Park showed me little insects called antlions, whose larvae (often called doodlebugs) build traps in sandy soil,” said Kelley, whose name now is followed with Ph.D., and the title of President, University of North Dakota.

“I watched closely as an ant fell into one of those traps and was devoured by the antlion-I was fascinated,” Kelley said.

Kelley’s close encounter with the antlion and its prey sparked his lifelong sense of inquiry.

“‘How in the world did that happen?’ I remember asking myself,” said Kelley, who began his tenure as UND’s 11th president July 1, 2008. “I wondered how the insect learned to build that trap. More importantly, as I pondered it, how was that information transmitted from one generation to the next of these insects? I became very curious about it.”

That curiosity followed him to college, where he spent a semester breeding Drosophila melanogaster-fruit flies-for a biology professor. Kelley, among other tasks, had to selectively breed flies with no eye pigment-in a species normally endowed with brightly hued eyes-for the final exam the professor was preparing for his class.

“That turned out to be a seminal experience for me,” said Kelley, under whose tenure the regional economic impact of research at UND has grown to about $193 million, from around $100 million when he started.

Fostering inquiry

Kelley’s research legacy at UND includes managing tough times following the end of congressional earmarks in 2011 and pared-down research budgets among the country’s top federal funding agencies.

Today, Kelley, a working scientist for the better part of 50 years in academia, is still curious about the world, and that includes fostering the work of young researchers and scholars going with promising lines of inquiry.

His scientific curiosity has driven his encouragement of UND’s research enterprise, which has nearly doubled since he took his seat in Twamley Hall.

“I ask questions like ‘how does it work, what are the mechanisms of natural processes, how do animals develop,'” he said. “That ultimately led me into graduate school where I studied cellular differentiation,” as part of his Ph.D. program at the University of California-Berkeley, in zoology: cell and developmental biology.

Kelley said curiosity-and a passion to dig up answers-is behind every effective research and scholarship project.

“It’s that kind of fundamental curiosity that drives all researchers and scholars, whether you’re curious about history, what really happened three centuries ago, whether you’re a researcher in the performing arts trying to find new and innovative ways to express movements of the human body, or whether you’re digging into the mysteries of epigenetics,” said Kelley. “That’s one of the most fascinating elements of university life. And one of the things that’s driven me over the years.”

UND President Robert O. Kelley Discusses his Research Legacy from University of North Dakota on Vimeo.

Collaboration is key

Kelley’s photograph hangs in the anatomy division’s display case in the Department of Basic Sciences at the School of Medicine & Health Sciences-that’s Kelley’s academic “home.”

“I exchanged notes and conversations when I was a working scientist with people like UND Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Anatomy Ed Carlson (who spent 40 years teaching and researching here, including 30 years as chair of the former Department of Anatomy),” said Kelley, who, until he took over as president at UND, was director of the Center for Rural Health Research and Education at the University of Wyoming, among other research leadership roles.

“That kind of collegiality underscores why our research enterprise is so successful here,” said Kelley. “Scholars and scientists get to know people all over the world, to exchange ideas, to collaborate, to gather to discuss theories, hypotheses — the results of your experiments.”

Kelley says today’s research is all about collaboration.

“Questions that have impact, whether in the physical sciences, life sciences, or in the humanities, are often so broad, so complicated, that they require so many different approaches,” said Kelley. “You’ve got to have colleagues, you’ve got to be able to come together around these complex issues that impact all of us.”

Kelley described research through an anecdote recounted by a carpenter he knows.

“He told me that he likes working with people because carpentry presented issues where it was beneficial to have more than one head to scratch,” Kelley said. “Science, the humanities-all scholarship, all research is much the same way-these days it’s hard to do it by yourself.”

Broader impacts

He’s the boss and it’s been his responsibility to lead the University’s research enterprise growth since he got here in 2008. But Kelley shrinks from taking much credit.

“In my position, you have to start out by saying ‘thank you’ to an awful lot of good, very bright, very hard working people who are clearly very committed to advancing their disciplines and advancing UND, in research and scholarly effort,” Kelley said.

“So we’ve had many bright people on our campus to enhance the research enterprise,” he continued. “The growth in research here hasn’t just been accomplished administratively-the real work is done in laboratories, classrooms and other kinds of venues where people come together to explore ideas and reach some kind of outcome in that exploration.”

The main thing about Kelley’s research legacy is a forward-looking perspective at broader impacts.

“UND’s research enterprise has adapted to the needs of the state very closely,” said Kelley.

“For example, all of us in North Dakota are concerned about our health, and about the physiology and the fundamental biomedicine behind health, and we have advanced this through laboratory development in the School of Medicine and Health Sciences,” Kelley said. “The state recognized that by funding the new medical school building. That huge state investment of $125 million will help to advance biomedical education and research and all of the activities of delivering care in our state.”

Filling the toolbox

Biomedical research has reached record funding this year-again, in a tough competitive environment nationally-with three major grants totally more than $30 million. Those developmental grants, roughly $10 million each, was for an epigenetics COBRE (Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence), a neuroscience COBRE, and for INBRE (IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence), an education and research program that manages funding for researchers around the state, including the tribal colleges.

“Those go into providing the infrastructure that we’ve been talking about,” Kelley said. “That’s about building the toolbox, building the equipment, instrumentation that we need, helping us hire the best and brightest faculty, giving them start-up monies, so that they have some ‘venture capital,’ if you will, to test out their ideas.”

Fueling energy research

A second research growth area: Kelley points to the significant expansion of energy research.

“It’s not just oil and gas-though that’s a big part of it, but we’ve also looked at wind, geothermal, solar initiatives; we’ve created an Institute for Energy Studies,” Kelley said. “We’re also building a new Collaborative Energy Complex, where people can come together to explore the ideas around energy broadly stated. We’re going to see great results over the coming years,” Kelley said.

“The Energy & Environmental Research Center, a very strong and applied engineering laboratory, is looking at very practical solutions to the problems facing the energy industry into the more basic fundamental sciences that are being developed around energy in the College of Engineering & Mines,” Kelley said.

Unmanned revolution

A third area that has taken off in the last several years under Kelley’s watch is Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), including the establishment of a Center of Excellence for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research, Education and Training, based at the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences.

“Actually, we’re using unmanned systems for a variety of robotic applications, not only those things that fly, but also things that work on the surface of the Earth, even some that go underneath the Earth and in water,” Kelley said.

“We’ve got new construction going on, new laboratories, thanks to (benefactors Si Robin and Mary E. Bazar), over at UND Aerospace (with the addition of Robin Hall),” Kelley said.

All this is in addition to the UAS Center of Excellence at the Grand Forks International Airport and a new training facility at the Grand Forks Air Force Base.

“They present huge opportunities for both basic and applied research activities relative to all of the technologies that go behind a UAS or other remotely operated vehicles,” Kelley said.

Interdisciplinary strengths

Kelley said there’s growth in many other areas besides the “big three” of biomedicine, energy, and aerospace thanks to a spirit of interdisciplinary collaborations in Arts & Sciences.

“We’re seeing real burgeoning in the digital humanities, including the UND Working Group in Digital & New Media which is trying to connect areas of library resources with the Philosophy Department, even across into the Music Department in the College of Arts & Sciences,” Kelley said. “They’re looking to create new educational paradigms in the digital humanities using technology to advance these areas.”

“We’re also seeing a lot of new research coming out of our Chemistry Department in collaboration with Chemical Engineering in biofuel development,” Kelley said. “It’s beyond ethanol — UND researchers are looking at what other forms of biomass and what other forms of fuel you can develop from that biomass. This is a rapidly growing area.”

Amplifying human intellect

Kelley’s long experience as a bioscientist doing bench research and managing research establishments has taught him a lot about complexity and the need for high performance computing (HPC) to engage in deeper investigations.

“That’s the thing about the biological sciences: complexity,” said Kelley. “We’ve understood since about 1953 the nature of the double helix, we’ve understood how genes now fit into chromosomes, but what the genome produces-how it works–creates stunning complexity.”

Today’s scientists-tackling complex questions and deluge of data the answers generate-can’t do much without HPC.

“Any scientist, any creative person, wants to crunch more numbers faster, wants to ask more questions, and get outcomes and answers more quickly,” Kelley said. “HPC amplifies the human intellect. That’s why we’re privileged that the state of North Dakota set up the High Performance Computing Center, located on west end of our campus-it gives researchers here and elsewhere in the system access to the computing power that’s essential to any effective research enterprise.”

To grow the research enterprise at UND,” Kelley says, the institutions must focus strengthening fundamental resources: facilities, equipment, laboratories, appropriate classrooms and technologies.

But Kelley also stressed, “The most important resource is the human mind,” he said. “So, we obviously must recruit the best, the brightest and we’re already doing that. And we’ve got more faculty coming in who are better prepared, more productive, and we’re going to see that growth across our campus.”

It is, Kelley noted, an exciting time to be a part of UND’s research and scholarly activities.