Baylor’s vision to become the preeminent Christian research university is motivated by a calling to address the world’s greatest challenges.
As the University pursues Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education recognition as a doctoral institution with the “highest research activity” — more simply communicated as Research 1 or R1 — Baylor research will grow in quality, visibility and impact. Such growth will lead to more opportunities to partner with public and private organizations to address those challenges. In addition, graduates with research experience will be prepared to innovate as problem solvers in a range of industries.
Last fall, Baylor commissioned a survey, in partnership with Texas Business Journals, to gather insights from Texas business leaders about the future of the economy and needs of employers related to a trained workforce. Nearly 600 responded to surveys on topics related to the state’s business landscape, growth projections, business concerns and the role of higher education in preparing the workforce and partnering to find solutions to industry challenges.
“Education is the backbone of our economy. As the business landscape grows and adapts to changing technologies, resource availability, regulations and worldwide competition, higher education must be nimble in the ways it prepares graduates to contribute to the future of a wide range of industries,” Baylor President Linda A. Livingstone, Ph.D., says.
“Further, research and innovation will play a vital role in the future of Texas businesses. As Baylor invests in a growing research enterprise and the pursuit of the highest level of research excellence, it is important to partner with an organization like the Texas Business Journals whose readers have their fingers on the pulse of Texas’ business climate.”
Survey findings, released in January, show widespread recognition that the market values research, and the impact of research experiences in the future workforce.
Key takeaways include:
The project’s research focused on executives working in Texas’ major markets: Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio. Among the survey respondents are business leaders in fields such as energy, real estate, finance, engineering and nonprofits, and representing organizations ranging from small businesses to billion-dollar corporations. Of the respondents, 40 percent identified as owners/partners, presidents/principals or executive-level managers of their companies.
Survey insights provide the opportunity to engage in meaningful conversation about innovative ideas and university-industry partnerships. In February, Baylor partnered with Dallas Business Journal to present “Texas Economy Present & Future,” a panel discussion moderated by President Livingstone and featuring three Texas business leaders: Lauren Dreyer, BS ’05, director of human resources and business operations at SpaceX and a member of the Baylor School of Engineering and Computer Science (ECS) Board of Advocates; Manny Fernandez, managing partner at KPMG LLC and a member of the Hankamer School of Business Advisory Board; and Rick Seaney, CEO of 3Victors Travel and FareCompare and a member of the ECS Board of Advocates.
“Higher education plays a major role, in Texas in particular, in preparing the next generation of leaders,” Fernandez says. “Going back to the research component of that, companies are looking for that kind of talent. Businesses look to universities to find talent that will make monumental changes in the ways we run our business.”
As universities and industry leaders seek to solve societal challenges, it is vital to have access to experienced leaders and develop future leaders — individuals equipped with the critical thinking and broad-based academic preparation to solve problems and navigate the rapid changes of dynamic work environments. The engaged learning environment prepares students more deeply to be problem-solvers and leaders in the decades ahead.
Baylor has long conducted meaningful research. The focus of Illuminate and the investment by the University — in areas such as faculty, post-doctoral researchers, post-graduate programs and purposeful interdisciplinary and university-industry research partnerships — will elevate that research portfolio among the top-tier research universities in the nation. With that growth, comes increased opportunities for students to be engaged in research that impacts societal and industry challenges.
Student research experiences at the undergraduate and graduate levels can take many forms — in a university lab, at businesses throughout Texas and across the country, in a University partnership with organizations like Waco Family Health Center or the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine, or through programs at Baylor designed to engage students in research, like the Office for Engaged Learning and Office of Undergraduate Research in Baylor’s College of Arts and Sciences.
“I think research sometimes gets misunderstood as the picture of a student working in a lab cleaning petri dishes or heating chemicals,” Dr. Rich Sanker, director of Baylor prehealth studies, says. “What we are doing is engaging students in opportunities to go deeper in their subject matter and in interdisciplinary research around it. We want them to think deeply and ask bigger questions about the future, to cultivate a process and methodology for solving problems. One day they will be working in the field and run into problems they never read in a textbook. Research at Baylor helps them put together a process to resolve that.”
Those experiences can make a difference. SpaceX’s Dreyer was a mechanical engineering student at Baylor.
“I had the opportunity to participate in research projects, opportunities that got me out of the classroom to apply knowledge and build skills that were analogous to what we look for in employees,” Dreyer says. “You go through the list of what you’re looking for in a great employee, and the research opportunities simulated that for me — to learn what it felt like to fail and succeed and build the resilience that I think it takes to be a great employee in an innovative company.”
Survey findings show wide-spread agreement: nearly 8 in 10 respondents said university research better prepares students for the workforce.
Impacting the world’s greatest challenges means focusing on areas of need — areas that are not contained within a single discipline. Baylor alumni shine in fields that call for collaborative problem solving, leadership, ethical decisions and care for neighbors and communities. Over the years, the University’s strengths have intersected with societal needs, creating a roadmap for Baylor’s focus. Illuminate, Baylor’s strategic plan, features five signature academic initiatives: health, data sciences, materials science, human flourishing, leadership and ethics and Baylor in Latin America, for strategic focus and investment.
“The five signature initiatives are some of the biggest challenges of the future,” Dr. Nancy Brickhouse, BA ’82, Baylor Provost, says. “Many will work in professions that will focus on health, managing massive amounts of information, and developing new materials. All will need to be grounded in ethics and will need a strong moral core to navigate the ethical challenges that will necessarily arise from their work.”
“It isn’t just classically trained programmers and software developers that we’re looking for. Some of our best had backgrounds in philosophy. They look at problems differently and think outside the box.”
Each initiative presents opportunities for students and faculty from numerous disciplines to bring their own skills and perspectives to the table, seeking holistic solutions and innovation borne from purposeful collaboration. Data sciences and health are dynamic fields that provide two such examples. When asked which of Baylor’s initiatives were most beneficial to the future Texas economy, survey respondents listed data sciences and health as the top two.
About one of every three students who attends Baylor plan for a career in some aspect of health. In concert with Baylor’s Christian mission and commitment to service, a healthcare focus has been a natural fit and a clear calling in the formation of Illuminate.
The University’s expanded healthcare programs complement the dynamic nature of the industry. While the traditional pre-med route through the sciences continues to attract many students, others approach health across a variety of disciplines with the assistance of Baylor’s health-related schools and programs. In recent years, the Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences and Robbins Institute for Health Policy and Leadership have enhanced the ways students hone their calling to serve.
“The landscape for healthcare is constantly shifting with changes coming from political, economic, sociological, legal and environmental influences,” Dr. Forest Kim, MHA ’03, program director of the Robbins MBA in Healthcare and clinical associate professor in the Department of Economics, says. “What does this mean for Baylor? There are many opportunities for Baylor faculty, students, and staff to continue to make a positive difference. Not only is Baylor well-poised to tackle the future challenges of healthcare from a research and education perspective, our Christian mission stirs us to view this as a calling.”
Data sciences, was identified by business leaders as the top area of research and expertise most beneficial to the Texas economy. Baylor recognized a need for skilled, ethical leaders across a variety of data science disciplines to address areas such as bioinformatics, data storage, data usage, security, business analytics, environmental data and more, and faculty in this area are moving the needle in growing opportunities for students.
Dr. Amanda Hering, BS ’99, associate professor of statistical science, is an international leader in the intersection of data sciences and the environment. She has received a $1.2 million grant from the National Sciences Foundation (NSF) to develop a core data sciences curriculum and undergraduate research program, with the goal to offer students early exposure to the role of data in their field.
“The NSF has what they call an ‘ecosystem’ of proposals they’re seeking to fund called ‘Harnessing the Data Revolution.’ Oftentimes, students won’t take their first real statistics course until their junior year,” Hering says. “We see an opportunity to engage students earlier in their academic careers. As we think about Illuminate, my hope is that this builds a pipeline of students with blended skills to take into the workforce. It’s a great place for Baylor to have an impact.”
Seaney, whose businesses rely on mountains of data to help customers save on airline and travel costs, says the best data scientists are skilled at more than computing and highlighted the need for practitioners with a broader view.
“I deal with data scientists all the time,” Seaney says. “These folks aren’t always easy to capture. In the industry we call them unicorns — about 30 percent math, 30 percent computer science and 30 percent business. It isn’t just classically trained programmers and software developers that we’re looking for. Some of our best had backgrounds in philosophy. They look at problems differently and think outside the box. There’s a lot of cross-pollination.”
Baylor’s increased research output means opportunities abound for partnerships with both public and private organizations, ranging from governmental organizations to companies from throughout Texas and around the world.
“Industry has been an important component of what we’ve done at Baylor for some time,” Dr. Kevin Chambliss, vice provost for research, says. “We’re working from a strong philosophical standpoint on having industry as a partner. It’s a unique moment, at this time in our history, to put a stake in the ground for a process that’s different than most universities — an approach that streamlines the process of doing business with us.”
Baylor faculty and staff have listened to the needs of industry partners and have customized the University’s collaboration opportunities. Every company is different; therefore, Baylor creates a unique partnership to match the company and its goals.
“Baylor’s increased research output means opportunities abound for partnerships with both public and private organizations.”
Within Baylor’s Office of the Vice Provost for Research, the Technology Commercialization and Industry Engagement team acts as the portal through which industry and Baylor are connected. Baylor’s approach involves a recognition of those core competencies of each partner and in each step of the research and development process. Through strategic partnerships with external organizations, Baylor is creating what Chambliss calls a “glide path, a place where the university stays in its lane of creation and partners with organizations outside the university to help with technology planning, venture funding and more.” Those partners exercise their core competencies to streamline the process of getting an idea from the lab to market. Baylor’s strategic flexibility on the ownership of IP removes an additional obstacle sometimes inherent in the process. (Learn more about Baylor-industry research partnerships at baylor.edu/research/resources)
“This is a unique moment for Baylor,” Chambliss says. “Illuminate is a fantastic plan, we’ve got a model for industry partnerships, and we’ve got students and faculty who like applied problems and want to make a difference in the world, with core facilities maintained and sustained to foster that. We’re open for business and are looking for partners ready to address real-world challenges together.”
The Texas Business Journal survey data is encouraging for an institution with a research vision such as Baylor. With nine Tier 1 research universities in Texas, business leaders in the state see a need for more. They also state a need for students-turned-workers with an interdisciplinary education.
“It’s affirming when you’re at a university to see that business thinks so highly of the research that universities are doing and recognizes the tremendous value in the research that universities are doing,” President Livingstone said on a recent edition of the Baylor Connections radio show and podcast. “It’s not just the learning that takes place, but it’s actually the research that’s being produced at these institutions that’s helping solve problems.
“I think it shows tremendous opportunity. As we partner on research opportunities, it’s not only valuable to the University and our students, but also valuable to the business community, and that’s very exciting.”