UH Creates $30 Million Fund to Recruit Key STEM Faculty

Initiative Aimed at Addressing Workforce, Industry Needs of Houston, Enhancing Nation’s Global Competitiveness

As the University of Houston (UH) solidifies its standing as a Tier One public research university, it is aggressively hiring stellar faculty to build a portfolio of nationally competitive translational research focused on energy-and health-related discovery and innovation.

To help recruit these faculty to UH, President Renu Khator has created a $30 million fund to provide start-up and incentive packages to attract some of the nation’s most talented research faculty in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. This commitment adds to the multi-million-dollar investment the university is making in new research facilities, as well as continuing to strengthen its research efforts, academic programs and industry partnerships at the 700,000-square-foot UH Energy Research Park.

Over the next two years, the university will hire 60 faculty members in STEM fields. These professors, and the five new National Academy of Science members who recently joined UH, are expected to be a catalyst for attracting high-achieving students to the university. As a result, UH’s capacity to produce more STEM graduates, particularly engineers and scientists who will conduct research in these important fields, should significantly increase.

Ultimately, these science and engineering graduates are expected to strengthen the nation’s global competitiveness and enhance the health of our national economy and citizenry. Here at home, these graduates also would address the growing workforce and industry needs of the Houston region and the state of Texas.

The importance of STEM education in sustaining and promoting American innovation and economic competiveness is spelled out in the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010, which calls for increased investment in innovation through research and development.

A recent U.S. Department of Commerce report titled “The Competiveness and Innovative Capacity of the United States” directly ties the success of the nation’s economy to the importance of innovation. For instance, its findings show that women with STEM jobs earned 33 percent more than comparable women in non-STEM jobs. As a result, the gender wage gap is smaller in STEM jobs than in non-STEM jobs.

Over the past 10 years, growth in jobs needing STEM skills was three times that of other sectors. The Commerce Department projects those jobs will continue to outpace other sectors over the next decade. Those jobs include many specialized fields such as computer engineering that are among the highest paying in the country, but also include attractive entry-level positions such as computer technicians.

STEM education is a pivotal issue for the city of Houston, which is focused on attracting and sustaining high-tech industries. Yet, Many STEM-related jobs are going unfilled despite high unemployment. UH has an important role to play in linking STEM education to job creation, Khator believes.

This strategic approach will help UH meet Khator’s TIER ONE goal of raising the university’s overall profile and addresses national concerns about the erosion of an educated workforce needed to sustain a position of scientific and technological leadership in the global economy.

To date, the university has hired more than a half dozen additional faculty in the STEM disciplines, and they already have begun conducting research here, said Rathindra Bose, vice president for research and technology transfer.

“We are aggressively recruiting faculty with a research focus in one of two areas – energy and health,” Bose said. “These are areas that address the nation’s urgent need for more students and faculty in the (hard sciences) and allow the University of Houston to help Texas stay competitive in a global economy.”

UH’s commitment to Tier One research initiatives and its global perspective are key reasons why faculty are responding positively to the university’s recruitment pitch.

Jose Luis “Pepe” Contreras-Vidal, professor of electrical and computer engineering, said he decided to join the university in 2011 for three reasons:  “The Tier One state of mind of the administration, faculty and students; the meaningful research opportunities that UH's membership in the Texas Medical Center entail; and the support of the administration and colleagues to provide the means to achieve my vision of developing novel biomedical robotics to improve quality of life, while reducing the socio-economic burden of disability in the U.S. and abroad.”

William S. Epling, associate professor of chemical engineering – who also agreed to join UH in 2011, was equally swayed by the university’s ability to have an international impact.

“The department of chemical and biomolecular engineering at UH is one of the best in the country, and I am very pleased and honored to be joining this elite group,” he said. “UH has what is considered the best environmental reaction engineering research team in the country, if not the world.

“There is no doubt to me that we at UH will not only continue to be the leaders in environmental and engineering research, but with existing core expertise in energy research across the faculty – and planned expanded research efforts in this area – I am very excited about the potential for us to become THE internationally recognized leaders in energy research as well.”

Health and energy are key components of Khator’s initiatives for excellence at UH. The university has established strong industry partnerships with major oil and gas companies, and the Texas Medical Center (TMC) to bolster these initiatives.

Almost half of Houston’s economic base is driven by energy, with more than 3,600 energy-related companies based in Houston. The city has almost 40,000 jobs related to oil and gas extraction, representing a third of such positions worldwide. UH faculty are actively pursuing energy research, including fossil fuels, bio-fuels, wind and solar power. The UH Energy Initiative includes the continued development of the UH Energy Research Park, a 74-acre complex dedicated to energy research and education.

The UH Health Initiative builds on the city’s rich healthcare offerings. Through partnerships with the 50 institutions of the Texas Medical Center, UH is expanding its presence in health-related research programs, including science and engineering, social science and social work, pharmacy and optometry. In 2009 UH became a full member institution of the Texas Medical Center, the 12th university or system of education and research to become a part of TMC, the largest medical center in the world.

For more information, please see http://www.uh.edu/provost/fac/faculty-openings/.