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University draws diverse group of faculty

October 05, 2010

Joining the faculty at ASU is not an option for professors who enjoy the status quo. The university draws academics who want to challenge convention, breaking through old boundaries to help develop new courses and new ways of thinking.

That sense of enterprise is a common thread among the 106 new faculty who have been hired at ASU, 98 of them joining the university this fall and the other eight next year.

The list includes the highest percentage of minority hires since 2006, and the highest proportion of women in three years. Forty-one are female, and 37 are ethnic minorities.

“I have a passion for creating novel programs that fall outside the norm and challenge us to think in new ways,” says Ann McKenna, who joined the College of Technology and Innovation this fall as an associate professor of engineering. “Here there is a palpable sense of challenging the education status quo, and a desire to not follow the crowd or worry about what ‘XYZ’ top peer institution does.

“My impression about the atmosphere took shape during the interview process. It just seemed like everyone enjoyed their jobs, and felt valued by the institution. The combination of people, atmosphere and intellectual activity was a perfect fit for me, so my decision to join ASU was an easy one.”

McKenna was a program officer for the National Science Foundation in the division of undergraduate education before coming to ASU. Her research focuses on understanding the cognitive and social processes of design, as well as curricular innovations and teaching engineering.

Yasmin Saikia will have the chance to shape a new program in peace studies, as the first Hardt-Nickachos Chair in Peace Studies at the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict. Also a professor of history in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, she was attracted to ASU from the faculty at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Saikia already has developed several new classes that have never before been offered at ASU, covering topics ranging from Gandhi and the politics of non-violence to Muslim women’s peace movements. She is developing a new course on the history of Pakistan, a rare offering in an American university.

“I wasn’t looking to leave UNC, but I saw this brand new position as a philosophical window to think about the purpose of what I was doing on a broader level,” she says. “Peace has always been studied through political science, in a practical way. My work is interdisciplinary, history with a question of ethics. We can talk about war in a way that humanizes us.”

Matthew Scotch, assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Informatics, came to ASU this year after completing his post-doctoral work and two years as an associate research scientist at Yale. He was drawn by the university’s commitment to a formal program in biomedical informatics, and by its encouragement of collaboration across disciplines.

“I’ve already started collaborating with the Biodesign Institute, where I have a secondary appointment as a key faculty member in the Center for Evolutionary Medicine and Informatics,” he says. “They’ve been very welcoming. It’s been really great, something I wasn’t expecting.

“As for faculty advancement, it seems there’s more of a potential to go all the way to the top. You’re expected to pull in grants and to get published, but there’s also the expectation that you’ll do well and succeed.”

Scotch’s research interest is in public health, linking health data on animals and humans to support surveillance of diseases that are transmittable between the two. He received a five-year career development award in 2008 from the National Institutes of Health.

Cesar Torres, assistant professor of chemical engineering in the Fulton Schools of Engineering who earned his doctorate at ASU last year, balked at the custom for doctoral students to move to other institutions once they graduated. The chance to continue interdisciplinary research with excellent professors in bioenergy was too attractive to leave behind.

“While other universities encourage collaborations, I think ASU is leading these efforts to be the main way we perform research,” says Torres. “The outcome of these efforts is a more comprehensive and valuable research in which many people are involved. This way, we can tackle big problems, like finding renewable energy sources, from many angles and at different levels of expertise.”

Torres, who already is a leader in microbial electrochemical cell research, collaborates with research groups in the School of Life Sciences, chemical engineering, environmental engineering and the Biodesign Institute.

Becky Ball, assistant professor of ecology in the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, was drawn by ASU’s highly regarded research program in ecology and sustainability, and by the chance to develop new courses. She also is excited by the chance for collaboration.

Ball comes to ASU from Dartmouth, where she did post-doctoral research for three years and was a visiting assistant professor of environmental studies.

“At the West campus I have the opportunity to be a part of the development of a new environmental science concentration, which gives me the freedom to teach and develop courses closely aligned with my research interests,” she says.

“There are many opportunities for exciting collaborations here at ASU, both within my field of biogeochemistry, as well as across disciplines. Researchers across the campuses have been very welcoming and open to these possibilities.”