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Research contributions mark Fink's time at ASU


August 19, 2010

Jonathan Fink is proud of the fact that many of his most important contributions at Arizona State have been in helping faculty develop interdisciplinary research initiatives.

It is largely because of these programs, ranging from urban ecology to flexible displays to computer-enhanced dance, that ASU was first recognized as a research pioneer. For Fink, forging connections among people and ideas has been the most fulfilling part of his 30-plus years at ASU.

So it is not too surprising that as of September 1, in his new position at Portland State University, Fink again will be spanning disciplines, both as an administrator and as a researcher. In his “day job” he will be PSU’s vice president for research and strategic partnerships, but he will also continue as co-director of the ASU-based Center for Environmental Science Applications, which focuses on urban dynamics, natural hazards and trans-boundary resource conflicts.

Through his continuing work at ASU, Fink said, “I plan to build bridges between research efforts in Phoenix and Portland, two cities that are commonly considered polar opposites in terms of sustainability. Despite perceptions to the contrary, there are actually a lot of things that Portland could learn from Phoenix.”

The ASU link will also allow expansion of urban-related partnerships that Fink has been building with Cisco Systems, the World Bank and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

While he says the opportunity in Portland came unexpectedly, in many ways it mirrors what he has been most involved with at ASU.

“I was attracted to Portland State because it is like a younger version of ASU,” Fink said. “PSU is the only comprehensive university in Oregon’s largest city. It is committed to expanding its enrollment and contributing to the economic diversification of its region through the growth of its research enterprise. Like ASU, it recently received $25 million to launch its Institute for Sustainable Solutions, which has a primary focus on urban systems.”

Fink’s connections to Portland State date back to his first semester at ASU. In June of 1980, he and two ASU colleagues were the first university geologists to conduct field studies of the ongoing Mt. St. Helens eruption. Logistics for accessing the volcano were handled by collaborating faculty from nearby Portland State.

During his time at ASU, Fink moved from his purely academic role to increasingly broad administrative duties, eventually leading the university’s research office for 10 years. In that time, he oversaw ASU’s most rapid expansion of its research expenditures, helped create signature institutes in biodesign and sustainability, and also strengthened the ties between academic research and economic development.

In 2007, that work led to new duties as the leader of ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability and as the country’s first “University Sustainability Officer.” Last year he returned full-time to research and teaching in sustainability. All of which led to his eventual move to Portland.

“My personal research focus has shifted over the past decade from volcanic to urban systems,” he added. “In many ways, Portland, in the shadow of Mt. Hood, is the best city in the U.S. to study both.”