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OPINION | BRIAN BERRY: Big-time research

Living under a (Little) Rock by BRIAN BERRY SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | May 3, 2021 at 2:00 a.m.

"UALR does big-time research?" was the first question I was asked when I disclosed my interest in a position with UA Little Rock. The most astounding thing about this question was that it was asked by my father, a longtime resident of Arkansas.

It was a good reminder that the innovative research performed at UA Little Rock by its industry-leading, dedicated faculty and talented students often remains unknown to many residents living just around the corner. It has been my mission and my pleasure to spread the word that UA Little Rock does, in fact, have some "big-time" research happening on campus.

UA Little Rock is an R2 doctoral research institution that focuses on dynamic, applied research that responds to the needs of our state, region, and nation. You might be asking yourself: "What kind of research does this include?" The answer includes national defense, bone regeneration, agriculture, race relations and so much more.

Let me uncover just a few areas of excellence, starting with national defense. You might be surprised to learn that UA Little Rock conducts significant defense-related research on our campus. This includes world-leading bone regeneration research focused on healing soldiers injured in battle, which is sponsored by none other than the U.S. Department of Defense.

It also includes world-leading research into the harmful techniques terrorists or other organizations employ on social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, wreaking havoc with misinformation. This research is sponsored primarily by the Office of Naval Research and instigated the development of tools and training used by the U.S. military and NATO. Consider a project focused on cargo screening, funded by the Department of Homeland Security. Consider research and training in the area of cybersecurity, an area critical for national defense. This is also a growing thrust at UA Little Rock and has been sponsored by the National Security Agency.

Can you tell I'm passionate?

While defense is surely an important research area at UA Little Rock, much of the research focuses right here in Arkansas. This includes work with Reynolds on surface modification of everyday items like aluminum foil in order to make it non-stick. Another scientist is focused on the modification of rice, a vital part of the Arkansas economy, to make it more resistant to diseases, pests, and drought. They are even exploring how these advances can allow crops to be grown in space for long-term space missions.

Outside of STEM research, there is also a great deal of important work happening, including public history work that has helped tell the stories of the Elaine Race Massacre and the Rohwer Japanese-American Internment Camp. An interdisciplinary initiative created an annual Little Rock Congregations Study that examines the intersection of faith, politics, and community engagement to better our communities.

These examples, as well as many others, are evidence of the amazing work happening at UA Little Rock. Not only does this work impact our communities and our national security, but it has a significant impact on our students who work side-by-side with the faculty on these projects.

Nothing highlights the community impact of these student research activities better than the annual Student Research and Creative Works Expo, which was held virtually this year on April 16. This expo is designed to showcase the work of students at all levels, ranging from freshmen to graduating doctoral students.

As I made my way through the virtual platform this year, I began watching the many videos that students had created detailing their projects. Once again, I was amazed by their creativity, dedication, and professionalism. These students represent the primary mission of UA Little Rock, while their projects represent a seminal learning experience that cannot be duplicated in the classroom.

The skills gained from these experiences produce students who are more competent, more competitive, and more successful as they move into the work force. This work shouldn't be hidden away in a lab somewhere. It should be understood and embraced by the community in which it exists--and which it serves.

We believe in this so much that UA Little Rock has a program dedicated to providing these "signature experiences" for our students. The Signature Experience Program, led by Jeremy Ecke, the director of undergraduate research, is funded by the George W. Donaghey Foundation. The goal of this program is to support student participation in research and creative works for the express purpose of providing them a high-impact learning opportunity that will build skills needed as they move into the marketplace. These skills include problem solving, teamwork, critical thinking, creativity, project planning, and many more.

Research creates the skilled work force needed for Arkansas to prosper. More importantly, research prepares these students to become leaders that will transform Arkansas for the future.


Dr. Brian Berry is the Vice Provost for Research and Dean of the Graduate School at UA Little Rock.

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