Chemistry professor steps up to new position

Dr. Kevin Chambliss recently became the associate dean for research and graduate education in the College of Arts and Sciences.

By Amanda Hargett-Granato | Reporter

A familiar face has taken up residence in a brand new office at Baylor. Dr. Kevin Chambliss, professor of chemistry, has taught and performed research at Baylor for 15 years, but his new title has only existed for six weeks.

At the beginning of the spring semester, Chambliss became the associate dean for research and graduate education in the College of Arts and Sciences. This position is new to Baylor and focuses on facilitating programs for research and graduate students. We sat down with Chambliss to discuss his new position, his personal research and his plans for the future.

Tell me a bit about your new job, how did it come to be?

This is a new position for me, and it’s also a new position for the College of Arts and Sciences. Having an associate dean for research and graduate education is certainly not uncommon at other universities. We’ve just never had one in Arts and Sciences.

This started really as an evaluation by a faculty committee over a year ago. I think Dean [Lee] Nordt asked them to determine if there was there a need within the college for the position like this. The committee ultimately recommended that there be one. They got the approval of the council of chairs, and there was an internal search. I obviously was one of the applicants and was offered the position and said yes.

What is the goal for the associate dean for research and graduate education?

The real goal is to try to have someone who, on a daily basis, is thinking about and is a vocal advocate for the research aspirations that are spelled out in both the university’s Pro Futuris strategic plan as well as the college’s Aspire document.

At this stage, the job is six weeks old. When I started, Dean Nordt and I both agreed we knew what this job looked like from maybe 40,000 feet. I think now six weeks into it, maybe we know what it looks like at 20,000 feet. But a lot of what initially I’ll be doing is just trying to figure out how can someone advocate effectively on the behalf of faculty and departments in the larger context of growing the research enterprise and graduate programs affiliated with the research program at Baylor.

Why does Baylor need a position like this?

I think historically what we all know we’re good at is being a great undergraduate institution. We’re rapidly becoming more recognized for graduate education and for research on the national scale, and I think it’s a good thing for everybody. Anything we can do to grow the research enterprise at the graduate level, and just faculty scholarship in general, will always have a positive influence on increasing the quality of and numbers of undergraduate research opportunities as well. I’m excited to get the chance to see what I can do in this regard.

How did you get interested in the sciences?

It was not something I would have thought of… I had a chemistry professor when I transferred back to Ouachita [Baptist University] who thought I was a good student in his class, and he actually approached me and said, ‘Would you be interested in doing research over the summer?’ I had never considered it. I got involved and learned that not only did it pay pretty well, but it was a lot of fun, and I really enjoyed it. When I graduated from college — and I joke when I say this, but it’s kind of true — I said I didn’t want a real job, so I went to graduate school. One thing just kind of led to another. It wasn’t something I had aspired to through high school or my youth or anything like that. It was a relationship that I had with a professor that really pushed me in that direction.

How did you end up at Baylor?

I grew up in Arkansas, on the other side of Texarkana. I knew both my parents were getting older, and so when I was looking for jobs, the proximity to my folks was something I was interested in. Waco was about the right distance. Close enough that I could be there quickly if I needed to be but far enough away that I still didn’t feel like I was going home.

Combined with that, at the time I was hired was sort of at the beginning of the Baylor 2012 initiative about making research and especially graduate students at that level more of their emphasis. I was drawn, I suppose, to the challenge of, ‘Can we do that?’ It’s been fun to be a part of that building process, and that was attractive even then.

What kind of research are you personally involved in?

We’ve done a lot of environmental chemistry. I’ve collaborated with Bryan Brooks, who is in environmental science, really ever since we both got here. We studied pharmaceuticals and other emerging contaminants in the environment and that has been a very fruitful line of investigation for us, for a decade and a half.

My group has also done a lot of work related to alternative fuels. I suppose most of our funds came with the bioethanol push, but since the price of oil has dropped we don’t just talk about bio-fuel anymore, we talk about bio-based products. But the general idea is, ‘can we use renewable resources to generate fuels and other products that help drive our economy?’

This to me is an interesting academic exercise, it’s also an important human exercise. Petroleum is the cash cow of all of society. We don’t just drive around with gasoline, it’s the precursor to almost every product in our economy. Whether we run out of oil in the next forty years or the next forty million years from an academic standpoint is sort of irrelevant. The bottom line is that it’s a finite resource and at some point, we will no longer have it.

What is your personal philosophy when it comes to research?

My philosophy has largely been one of interdisciplinary study, and that really goes all the way back to the professor I worked with as an undergraduate. It got reiterated to me when I was working on my Ph.D. I’ve always worked with scientists who work across boundaries. It was hard to say they were just a chemist or just an analytical chemist. I’m of the opinion that the most effective scientists in the next century will have broad training across traditional academic boundaries. If students can learn to think that way and interact that way with colleagues, I think they have an opportunity to work on some of the most challenging problems that we have in science. They all seem to increasingly occur at interfaces between chemistry and biology or between chemistry and physics.

One of the big initiatives that I’m working on already in this office was started before I got into this role but has become something that I’m helping push forward, is to extend that interdisciplinary idea to collaborations between faculty in STEM disciplines and faculty in the humanities and social sciences.

That’s something that translates to this position but is also something that is near and dear to my own heart and in my own lab. It’s been neat for me to find specific examples, where I can take that model and apply it in a research setting. Increasingly, it is becoming the norm, not just at Baylor but across the nation and around the world. That this is how research gets done.”

What are the long-term goals for this office?

I think it’s tough to set long-term goals at this point. I would say that in some respects those goals are sort of set by documents such as Pro Futuris and Aspire. I think Baylor wants to be recognized as not only a Christian research university but one that is ranked among the top research universities in the country. We’ve made significant progress in moving along that trajectory, but we still have a long way to go to get there. So, I think that goal is out there. My job is to say ‘from where we are now, how can I help faculty do the things that we all know we need to do to get Baylor closer to that aspirational goal of being among the nation’s top research institutions?’ And then the icing on the cake is being able to do it and maintain our identity of being a Christian research university.

How do Baylor’s Christian identity and research focus fit together?

I think they work well together. It’s funny, a lot of my science colleagues outside of Baylor are skeptical of the Christian faith. This is not uncommon, but for me it’s never been anything to resolve. In the 15 years that I’ve been here, I think we’ve merged these two areas really well. One of the exciting things that I’ve been approached with already in this position is whether or not I would be interested in being involved in a science-religion seminar series that’s typically been offered to graduate students. It may have started by saying it’s important for graduate students in the sciences to understand the potential issues that come up in a religious setting that they need to be aware of and what is the right perspective from a Christian standpoint on those issues, but I think our conversation, we’re rapidly recognizing, needs to go both ways.

We have a number of people who come to Baylor who will go on to be practitioners in religion and it’s just as important as scientists to say ‘what are the scientific issues and what does the science say about those?’ Baylor has always been a place to me where those conversations and the exchange on those ideas is very free, very open and also very accurate. I feel honored to be at a place where we can give an intellectually informed Christian perspective on things.

What is the most important thing for people to know about your new position?

I think the biggest thing is for people to understand it’s all new. It’s exciting. But how it translates day-to-day is difficult to detail at this point. My job is to be a servant to faculty, to students, to departments. Help me help you. That’s certainly where I’ve been trying to put my focus. I’ve been going out and meeting a lot of department chairs and learning more about their programs and what their needs are. But also asking them how can I, in this role, help you be successful at the things that you’re trying to be successful at.

If there was something I wanted people to know, that would be it. [This office] is for the whole college, it’s not just for the sciences. Research is a completely global statement within the College of Arts and Sciences. My greatest hope is that I can be helpful to them achieving their goals.