Learning and Growing Through UMaine Research

Four and a half years of visits to the University of Maine’s numerous research labs, creative arts spaces, university farms, research forests, field sites, instruments, and development facilities in Orono and beyond have taught me a great deal. I am grateful to all who have stepped away from their research time to explain what they do and answer my many questions.

When I arrived here in 2018, I thought I had a comprehensive perspective on university research, having done some myself and having spent a decade as a research administrator at the National Science Foundation (NSF), the nation’s premier agency for advancing the progress of science and education. But interacting with researchers from the faculty at the University of Maine and the University of Maine at Machias, along with their graduate and undergraduate students and external collaborators, has given me a broader and deeper perspective. Those experiences help me be a better president of our flagship land, sea and space grant R1 university — for our students, our faculty and staff, and Maine.

Thank you to VPRDGS Varahramyan for allowing me to take up some space in this newsletter with a periodic contribution to share my observations and highlight some of what I am learning in my quest to more fully understand the broad research portfolio, and those who work on it, at UMaine.

Last summer I had the good fortune to travel to Greenland, to the towns of Narsarsuaq and Narsaq. I went to observe research activity led by four of our university’s most distinguished scientists: Dr. Paul Mayewski, Dr. Jasmine Saros,  Dr. Kristin Schild, and Dr. Kiley Daley, as well Dr. Robert Northington from Husson University. The visit was to participate in the NSF-funded National Research Traineeship (NRT) project, SAUNNA (Systems Approaches to Understanding and Navigating the New Arctic), led by Dr. Saros. Both the NRT program and the Navigating the New Arctic program were launched by NSF while I worked there.  I was very eager to see how actual projects looked “from the other side.” This group did not disappoint.

The faculty, staff, and graduate and undergraduate students on this trip were gathering data for several research studies, all in some way examining climate change issues and impacts from multiple vantage points. And SAUNNA is an education project too, the activities of which are intentionally designed to prepare the next generations of Arctic researchers. As Jasmine Saros notes in this video summarizing the trip, for many students this was their first trip to the Arctic — it was mine, as well.

This experience taught me a great deal about why UMaine is special and distinctive as a research institution, and gave me ideas about how we can make this distinction stronger and broader. In my few days with the team, I gained new insights into why our undergraduate and graduate students who engage in faculty-led projects — whether they are taking water samples from a Zodiac inflatable boat in a fjord, interviewing sheep farmers in South Greenland, observing teachers in a middle school in Bangor, or setting up experiments at the blueberry research lab at the Witter Teaching and Research Center — are benefitting from something special, and uncommon. That is because UMaine, even as a growing powerhouse in research with its R1 status and strong national rankings, puts fostering student learning at the center of everything.

Our faculty tell me they want to be here because they can pursue frontier research activity with students and pay forward the excellent mentoring and inclusion that enabled them to become the researchers they are. This is part of why I am sure that our Harold Alfond Foundation-funded Research Learning Program has the potential not only to thrive and expand UMS-wide, but to distinguish us, the University of Maine, on the international higher education stage through the integration of research and teaching at the undergraduate level.

In one of my conversations with the student researchers in their hostel in Greenland, over tea and with a stunning view of glaciers, we talked about how to create a Research Learning Experience (RLE) that could somehow enable more students to have some of the same experience, remotely. I hope that next year such an option will be on our RLE list.

Bringing a large group to South Greenland, visiting ice fields, getting samples back to the lab in Maine, living and working in tents in very remote areas with mainly caribou for company, and avoiding COVID (I wasn’t successful on that front) require extraordinary commitment and persistence. The planning, logistics, and obstacles in obtaining the data that come from such an expedition — really, for obtaining most data — are daunting.

What drives the UMaine researchers? Perhaps a passion, verging on obsession, to understand the world around us or to solve a problem in order to enrich our lives and sustain our planet. With that passion also comes joy that the entire university community can share — excitement at such major results as 3D printing a house, or reaching definitive findings about the accelerated rate of glacier ice loss — and the rewards of solving hundreds of small problems along the way, like using PVC pipe, string, and a test tube to draw water samples. I observed members of the SAUNNA team having a prolonged, thoughtful discussion about how to respectfully and carefully pose questions to an Inuit community leader as a step in accessing the interviewees for one of the social science projects. The faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates had equal voice in figuring out what to do; I saw a moment of teaching and learning embedded in the work of research. Whether collecting water samples or collecting interviews, I observed excellence, inclusion, respect, and amazing expertise.

On this visit, as on so many of the visits I have made to almost three dozen UMaine and UMaine Machias research sites, labs, and teams in my time here, I saw multiple examples of what it means for research to be interdisciplinary and convergent. The SAUNNA website advertises for students in anthropology, Earth sciences, freshwater ecology, economics, law, and marine sciences; these areas and their several subspecialties were well represented on the Greenland trip. Learning to work together and solve meaningful problems with people from a variety of disciplines, and with a range of levels of education and experience, is fundamental to the education of tomorrow’s leaders in all fields and professions. Ensuring that students have that experience is part of what we can do naturally in the research context here at UMaine. Students who come to learn with us, and who engage in research, will enter the world of work and their chosen professions with unique and important skills and experiences.

I can’t say enough about the kindness of the Greenland trip leaders who helped me have the right gear (and miraculously produce what I was missing, seemingly out of thin air) and who patiently answered my questions. Plus, they brought me food and coffee while I was isolated during my bout with COVID. And sampling 10,000-year-old glacial ice was amazing, too.

In the University of Maine community, our students and faculty are answering critical questions for our future, advancing science, teaching the next generation of thinkers and leaders, and propelling our state and our nation forward. Those teams defy categorization, deepen understanding of our world, and converge on solutions through hard work, joy and creativity. It is nothing short of incredible.

Thank you for providing the opportunity to learn.