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Q&A: Stephen Hsu, Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies, MSU

Stephen Hsu was named Michigan State University’s vice president for research and graduate studies, effective Aug. 20, 2012. He was formerly the director of the Institute for Theoretical Science and professor of physics at the University of Oregon. He also founded two Silicon Valley computer security companies. Hsu received his doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley.

URC: After your successful roles over the last two decades as both a published researcher and an entrepreneur, why were you interested in taking on a leadership role in university research?

Stephen Hsu: As an academic researcher, specializing in particle physics and cosmology, I’m obviously passionate about the mission of the research university. My background in the technology sector opened my eyes to the importance of strong leadership and good management. In these times of tight budgets and cutbacks, higher education needs leaders with a broad range of experience – especially with innovation and new technologies. Running a startup teaches you how to make difficult, complex decisions under pressure. Some have compared it to rebuilding the engine in a car while it speeds down the racetrack. I think universities could use some of this know-how, given the current challenges.

URC: What attracted you to Michigan State University?

SH: MSU has a broad research portfolio, ranging from its strength in nuclear physics, to areas like plant biology, medical research and ecology. During the interview process I was impressed by the consistent high quality of individuals I met – from individual professors, often leaders in their disciplines, to administrators who obviously cared very deeply about the mission of the university and its future. The size of MSU and its research effort makes this job an interesting challenge for me – both at the intellectual and leadership level.

URC: Like its peer institutions in the Association of American Universities (AAU), Michigan State University has a complex portfolio of research and scholarly activities – with all of the related challenges of federal budget uncertainties, increasing regulatory responsibilities, and the need to provide an infrastructure that supports twenty-first century knowledge acquisition. What will your strategy be to help MSU’s research community meet these challenges?

SH: The real source of any institution’s strength is its people. The PI’s (Principal Investigators) are the real heroes, and the main thing we can do is to help them with their work. We obviously want to align the incentives to support great research, and minimize regulatory load while still protecting the interests of the institution as a whole.

Interdisciplinary research is where many of the best new opportunities are, but we need to make it easier for scholars and scientists to collaborate with counterparts in different departments and colleges.

URC: Michigan State University is actively involved – in East Lansing and across the state – in the effort to revitalize Michigan’s economy with new ideas, new businesses, and more highly skilled people. As the university’s research leader and someone with working entrepreneurial experience, how will you help to drive this initiative?

SH: We intend to work very hard to help technologies and companies originating from MSU to reach the point where they are economically viable and can create new jobs and industries in the state and beyond.

I am very passionate about new company formation (startups) as a source of innovation in the economy. Michigan has a skilled manufacturing workforce, and I’m optimistic that, despite globalization, there are still opportunities to take those capabilities in new directions. One great example is the Lansing company Niowave, which is building new commercial accelerators using know-how that originates in MSU’s National Superconducting Cyclotron Lab. This is advanced manufacturing and engineering at the cutting edge of medical and materials science research.

URC: One of the major projects that will strengthen Michigan State University’s research reputation – and Michigan’s economy – in the coming decades is the $600-million Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB), a new national user facility for nuclear science, funded by the Department of Energy Office of Science (DOE-SC). Is there an aspect of the project that particularly excites you?

SH: FRIB will help answer one of the great open questions in nuclear physics – where do heavy elements come from in the universe? Heavy elements (heavier than iron) are unstable, and have to be synthesized under very special conditions – such as in supernovae or in neutron stars. In order to understand these processes better, we need to create and study the interactions of rare isotopes. FRIB will not only address these questions, it will develop new accelerator and nuclear chemistry technologies that will have further applications in medicine, imaging and other areas. The staff at NSCL/FRIB are world class and we’re very lucky have them on our campus.