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The University at Buffalo Talks to Fair Observer

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June 13, 2019 19:33 EDT

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Satish Tripathi, the president of the University at Buffalo.

A member of the Association of American Universities, the University at Buffalo (UB) is the largest and most comprehensive public research university in the State University of New York (SUNY) system. A world-renowned center for research and academic excellence,  Buffalo was established in 1846 and enrolls more than 30,000 students. The university is 89th in the 2019 Best College Rankings, according to the US News and World Report.

Researchers and scholars at the University at Buffalo are credited with many important scientific discoveries, achievements and breakthroughs. For example, the university’s medical researchers have developed a vaccine that can block mosquitoes from transmitting malaria. It was also reported in early 2018 that the University at Buffalo’s scientists were developing a “cocaine breathalyzer” that detects cocaine molecules based on any given biological sample from a person’s breath, urine or saliva. The university is a hub for groundbreaking studies on climate change and global warming, as well.

Satish Tripathi, an Indian-American computer scientist and academic administrator, is the president of the University at Buffalo. He is an internationally-recognized researcher and higher education leader who previously served as a University of Maryland faculty member. He has led the University at Buffalo since 2011.

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Tripathi about the achievements and accomplishments of the University at Buffalo, his vision for the institution and his views on international education.

The interview was conducted at the beginning of 2019, and the transcript has been edited for clarity.

Kourosh Ziabari: You have been the president of the University at Buffalo for seven years now. What are some of the accomplishments you made that you’re most proud of? What were some of the most notable challenges?

Satish Tripathi: One accomplishment that I’m most proud of also proved to be among the most challenging — namely, the move of our Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences to its new, 640,000-square-foot home on our downtown campus. The largest construction project in the history of the State University of New York (SUNY) system, the new building anchors our medical school in the heart of Buffalo’s biomedical corridor, adjacent to key healthcare and research partners.

This synergy is helping us further medical research, innovation and education while improving health care for people throughout the region and well beyond. In terms of research, we have expanded our portfolio over the past seven years, particularly in federally funded research. This includes several highly prestigious grants, among them a $16 million award from the National Institutes of Health that places us in an elite tier of institutions that are accelerating the pace at which we move medical drugs and other discoveries from the laboratory bench to the patient’s bedside. It is but one example of the impact UB research is having on the overall health and well-being of the many communities we serve.

In terms of our students, I take great pride in UB’s successful efforts to enhance their overall experience. Over the past seven years, we have reimagined our general education curriculum, created a much more robust living-learning environment, dramatically expanded experiential learning opportunities and developed “Finish in 4,” a highly successful and nationally recognized program that gives our freshmen all the resources they need to graduate in four years. Of course, our faculty are instrumental in this regard, and I am tremendously proud of all they do for our students, of the impact of their research, and of their rising national and international prominence.

In our SUNY system, they are recognized for these contributions with promotion to the rank of SUNY distinguished professor. The highest academic rank achievable in the system, a SUNY distinguished professorship demonstrates a faculty member’s consummate professionalism, groundbreaking scholarship, exceptional instruction, and breadth and significance of service. Since 2007, we have had more full SUNY distinguished professors named than any other SUNY institution. To put a finer point on this, in the past five years, we had 33 faculty appointed to the SUNY distinguished ranks.

Ziabari: For the 16th straight year, the University at Buffalo has been ranked as one of the top 25 institutions in the United States hosting international students. What does the University at Buffalo do to make its campus welcoming and attractive to international students?

Tripathi: We do so well in our international enrollment because of our international reputation. This is our most powerful recruitment tool — one that draws high-achieving students from points all over the globe. When our international students join our university community, we ensure that they have all the support and services they need to succeed.

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As a former international student myself, I appreciate how important these resources are to our students’ success. A thorough orientation, dedicated academic advisement, guidance navigating the campus and the community, peer and faculty mentoring, extracurricular clubs and activities — all help our students not only settle in to their new home, but thrive academically and personally. Our international mindset informs everything from our curriculum to our living-learning environment, and our entire UB community benefits because of it.

Ziabari: Last year, the new building for the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences was opened. Why was it a milestone for the University and an important development for local people? What makes the school stand out as a modern, 21st-century medical school that is suitable for making important discoveries and sharing of new knowledge?

Tripathi: As I mentioned earlier, the new building for the Jacobs School is having a significant impact on our university and our community. In one practical sense, we have doubled the space we devote to medical education, which has allowed us to expand our medical school class size by 25% so we can help fill physician shortages in Western New York, New York State and across the country.

Beyond the size of the school, the design features state-of-the-art classrooms and interactive auditoria, novel medical and surgical simulation centers, a modern structural sciences learning center, and an array of group learning and study venues, all of which promote enhanced, collaborative and integrated learning and clinical experiences.

This strategic move to our Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, a decade in the making, positions UB’s Jacobs School at the center of a highly productive clinical and biomedical research ecosystem where we are generating new knowledge, making life-changing discoveries and implementing the latest advances in medical care.

Ziabari: How does the University at Buffalo plan to realize the UB 2020 Vision? What does the university need to fulfill this vision, and what will be the outcome of it?

Tripathi: UB 2020 has never been about a fixed point of time. It has always been about a vision — our vision of excellence. Throughout my tenure as provost and president, we have remained steadfast in this vision of excellence. We seek excellence in our research so we can respond to the most challenging problems and questions of our time. We seek it in our educational experience so we are preparing our students to make a difference in our 21st century society. We seek it in our physical environment so we create an ideal environment for learning, research, scholarship, creative activities and discovery. And through this transformative education and these transformative discoveries, we seek to enhance the many communities we serve. This is the vision.

Although I am proud of all that we have achieved through UB 2020, it is not about accomplishments to be checked off a list. The vision is always in front of you. We are constantly moving closer to it, and always in a strategic, thoughtful, orchestrated fashion. I believe in our vision because, ultimately, it is about making the greatest impact we can on our world.

Ziabari: What’s your assessment of the university’s international presence and stature? Your institution boasts of high-quality research institutions, modern facilities and a distinguished faculty. Is the university close to your vision for an internationally respected research institution?

Tripathi: First and foremost, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities, which positions us as one of the most prominent research universities in North America. To provide a bit of context, the 60 AAU institutions in the United States award nearly one-half of all US doctoral degrees yet make up only 8% of all four-year PhD-granting universities. AAU institutions also earn the majority of competitively awarded federal funding for academic research.

UB has a long, rich history of engagement with universities around the world. Every day, our faculty across the disciplines are collaborating on research projects with colleagues around the nation and globe.

As an AAU institution, we have demonstrated our commitment to educating tomorrow’s leaders and advancing society through our education, research and discoveries. This, in turn, has earned us national and international recognition. In terms of our rankings, the single most respected and influential ranking among international students is that of the US News and World Report. In 2018, UB rose to its highest ranking ever among the nation’s best public universities, at number 38. And in the category of the nation’s best public and private universities, we have risen 32 spots in a little over a decade — more than any institution in the AAU.

Ziabari: In 2016, a study by The Education Trust named UB as one of the universities in which the graduation rate for black students increased significantly and the gap between white and black students was notably closed. The graduation rate for black students was reported to be 63.5% from 2003 to 2013. How did you make this achievement? Generally, how does the University at Buffalo tackle racial inequality in education?

Tripathi: We strive to provide all of our students with the support, the advisement, the interventions and the related resources that enable them to succeed. Our robust and thoughtful student advisement system helps our students stay on track academically. Our extracurricular clubs, our on-campus employment, our vibrant arts and culture scene, and our rich opportunities for community engagement create a welcoming environment for our students — a community where each of their unique talents, contributions and perspectives are deeply valued.

In this welcoming and inclusive environment, we are seeing our graduation rates increase across the board. Moreover, we make sure that the students we recruit have the necessary academic grounding and preparation to succeed at UB.

Ziabari: Tell our readers about your Critical Conversations and Signature Series programs. How has the response been by the university community to these initiatives? Will the conversations and series continue throughout 2019?

Tripathi: We developed UB’s Critical Conversations program to showcase distinguished scholars at the forefront of their fields. Each year, we invite a prominent thought leader to campus to discuss major questions and broad-ranging challenges facing society. Signature Series, another annual tradition, spotlights UB’s groundbreaking achievements and impact in arts and letters. It features either a distinguished alumna or alumnus — past speakers have included Abbe Raven, CEO of A&E Networks, and Pulitzer-Prize winning cartoonist Tom Toles — or UB faculty members whose achievements exemplify our university’s vibrant culture of creative excellence, ingenuity and imagination.

Since I launched both programs in 2013, they have been exceptionally well received by our campus, and our broader community. As both series provide invaluable opportunities to engage with innovative trailblazers, we will certainly continue them into 2019 and beyond.

Ziabari: In your 2018 State of the University Address, you noted that the university’s first Science and Technology Center Award was successfully renewed with a $22.5 million grant, which enables the continuation of your work with BioXFel research consortium. Would you please tell us more about this collaboration and the university’s contribution to it?

Tripathi: This consortium has been a point of pride for our university, and I’m so pleased to talk about it. Simply put, BioXFEL is a groundbreaking research consortium that uses X-ray lasers to analyze a vast array of new molecular targets for drug discovery. Since 2013 — when UB and our partner institutions received the initial $25-million grant from the National Science Foundation to establish BioXFEL — our scientists have harnessed the power of X-ray lasers to discover 350 new molecular structures.

BioXFEL is truly transforming the field of structural biology with this research, which has profound implications for health and wellness across the lifespan. As such, it aligns perfectly with our mission to serve the greater good. The recent $22.5 million renewal award from the National Science Foundation is a powerful example of UB’s leadership in life sciences research.

Ziabari: Is the University at Buffalo currently engaged in partnership programs with universities outside the United States to carry out joint research projects or offer joint degrees?

Tripathi: UB has a long, rich history of engagement with universities around the world. Every day, our faculty across the disciplines are collaborating on research projects with colleagues around the nation and globe. In fact, our 1980 exchange with the Beijing University of Technology was the first between a Chinese and a US university following the normalization of relations between the two countries.

Today, we maintain vital institutional affiliations with more than 90 leading institutions around the world for exchange, cooperation in research and education, and collaborative degrees. Some of our more recent initiatives include dual PhD agreements with top universities in India and China. Our offshore degree programs include six UB undergraduate programs, delivered entirely at the Singapore Institute of Management, that currently enroll some 1,500 students.

Ziabari: Is there any discovery or innovation by the university faculty members in the year 2018 that you’re personally attracted by and would name as the landmark achievement of the Buffalo community?

Tripathi: First: Women’s Health Initiative (WHI). With deep expertise in cancer research. UB has a longstanding leadership role in responding to this national and global priority. One of the most prominent UB efforts is its leadership in the national Women’s Health Initiative (WHI), one of the largest clinical trials ever undertaken in the US.

UB has played a key role in the groundbreaking NIH-funded WHI for more than two decades. The WHI has revolutionized health care for women through prevention strategies and identification of risk factors for breast and colorectal cancer and other critical diseases. The WHI has brought a number of transformative insights to health care practice for women, including a landmark study demonstrating substantially increased rates of breast cancer and cardiovascular disease related to hormone therapy.

In the decade following this study, it is estimated that 4.3 million fewer women used hormone therapy, resulting in the prevention of more than 180,000 cases of breast cancer and other life-threatening illnesses, as well as a savings of $37 billion within the US health care system.

The initial WHI contract and extension studies have brought more than $21 million in NIH grants to UB, as well as another $12 million in additional funding to the WHI center since 1993.

Second: new optical device to improve detection of biological and chemical samples. UB researchers are making innovative improvements to infrared absorption spectroscopy, which scientists use to detect performance-enhancing drugs in blood samples and tiny particles of explosives in the air.

A UB-led team of engineers is making this technology more sensitive, inexpensive and versatile. The sensor works with light in the mid-infrared band of the electromagnetic spectrum. This part of the spectrum is used for most remote controls, night vision and other applications. The process is known as surface-enhanced infrared absorption (SEIRA) spectroscopy. The sensor, which acts as a substrate for the materials being examined, boosts the sensitivity of SEIRA devices to detect molecules at 100 to 1,000 times greater resolution than previously reported results. The SEIRA advancement could be useful in any scenario that calls for finding traces of molecules. This includes, but is not limited to, drug detection in blood, bomb-making materials, fraudulent art and tracking diseases.

Third: Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI). The University at Buffalo CTSI serves as the hub for the entire Buffalo Translational Consortium. The BTC is a regional collaboration of the University at Buffalo health sciences schools, leading clinical institutions such as UBMD Practice Plan, Kaleida Health, Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, Erie County Medical Center and the Buffalo VA Medical Center, research institutes and community organizations. All partners share a commitment to perform research with a vision to improve health and reduce health disparities in our community.

With an innovative, collaborative, inclusive culture, UB’s CTSI supports the advancement of research across the entire translational spectrum — from translating basic science discoveries into health care interventions to clinical trials to bringing these advances into real-world community settings. We train and mentor the next generation of clinical and translational scientists and train future physicians, nurses and other health care professionals in using the newest advances in research.

Through the CTSI, we engage the community and health care providers in all phases of clinical research — driving the research agenda, working as part of research teams, participating in clinical trials and benefiting from research results. The work of the Buffalo Translational Consortium has a transformative impact on the health of our community. The CTSI was established in 2014 with a $16-million NIH award.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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