A photo of a man wearning a black suit jacket, a white undershirt, a red tie, and glasses.
Sethuraman Panchanathan, Ph.D., director of the National Science Foundation, said VCU's focus on semiconductor-related innovations and its efforts training the next generation of STEM professionals stood out during a visit to campus this year. (Contributed photo)

Ahead of commencement, NSF director Sethuraman Panchanathan assesses the research landscape today and reflects on the importance of empowering students

Panchanathan will be the featured speaker at VCU’s universitywide commencement ceremony on Dec. 9.

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Since 2020, Sethuraman Panchanathan, Ph.D., has served as the director of the National Science Foundation, a $9.5 billion independent federal agency charged with advancing all fields of scientific discovery, technological innovation and STEM education.

Panchanathan, who visited Virginia Commonwealth University in February and called it one of the U.S. universities that “matter for the future,” will serve as the featured speaker at VCU’s universitywide commencement ceremony on Dec. 9. Reflecting on his own academic experience, Panchanathan says, “The journey often unfolds in unexpected ways.”

Panchanathan, a computer scientist and engineer, previously served as executive vice president of the Arizona State University Knowledge Enterprise, where he also was chief research and innovation officer. In addition, he was founder and director of the Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing at ASU.

He answered questions from VCU News about trends in higher education research, his research background and what he plans to share with VCU’s newest graduates this week. 

When you consider the research landscape today, particularly in higher education, are there trends that are proving to be particularly influential in how research is conducted?

Today's research landscape is notably shaped by the increasing emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration. As researchers from different fields come together, diverse perspectives converge, fostering innovative solutions to complex problems. The integration of advanced technologies, such as artificial intelligence and big data analytics, has become a cornerstone in modern research. These tools not only enhance the efficiency of data analysis but also open up new avenues for exploration and discovery. There is a palpable shift toward the open science movement, advocating for greater transparency and accessibility in research. This trend encourages researchers to openly share methodologies, data and findings, promoting a more collaborative and inclusive scientific community. I would also add that a growing emphasis on translational research is influencing how investigations are conducted.

Are there new opportunities or challenges for researchers and research institutions today?

With the rapid pace of technological advancements, researchers find new opportunities in fields like biotechnology, renewable energy and AI. These breakthroughs not only advance scientific understanding but also have significant implications for societal progress. Navigating the evolving landscape of funding sources presents both challenges and opportunities for research institutions. While increased competition for resources poses a challenge, it also encourages institutions to diversify their funding strategies and explore innovative partnerships. Today, researchers have unprecedented opportunities for impactful international collaborations with like-minded nations. This global interconnectedness facilitates the exchange of ideas, resources and expertise, enriching the research landscape with diverse perspectives and approaches.

How has your background in higher education and your own research experience prepared you for your position at the NSF?

My background in academia and research provided a strong foundation in critical thinking and research methodology and has instilled a deep appreciation for the importance of curiosity-driven inquiry and the need to balance scientific exploration with real-world impact. These skills are invaluable in navigating the multifaceted challenges that arise in my role at NSF. Having experienced diverse research environments, I have developed a collaborative mindset. This background enables me to foster partnerships and collaborations that drive collective progress in scientific discovery. The dynamic nature of higher education has equipped me with adaptability. This trait is crucial in a leadership role, where responding to shifting priorities and emerging trends is essential for effective decision-making.

Student research is a priority at VCU. What are your views on student research and its importance — both for students and for the progress of research itself?

Student research is vital, fostering a culture of inquiry, cultivating critical thinking and problem-solving skills and connecting academia to real-world challenges. Through hands-on experiences, students cultivate the ability to apply theoretical knowledge to real-world challenges. Encouraging student involvement in research nurtures a pipeline of future innovators. By empowering students to contribute to the scientific community early in their academic journeys, we are sowing the seeds for groundbreaking discoveries in the future. Student research bridges the gap between theoretical knowledge and practical application. This connection not only enhances the educational experience but also contributes to the overall progress of research by bringing fresh perspectives and ideas.

What were your impressions of VCU during your visit in February?

VCU's Virginia Microelectronics Center and the Nanomaterials Core Characterization Facility are impressive examples of cutting-edge research facilities. These state-of-the-art spaces underscore VCU's commitment to providing researchers with the resources necessary for groundbreaking discoveries. The dedication to diversity and inclusion in STEM was evident in discussions and initiatives. The university's commitment to fostering an inclusive environment enhances the richness of perspectives within the scientific community. VCU's focus on semiconductor-related innovations and the deliberate effort in training the next generation of STEM professionals stood out during my visit. This commitment to advancing technology and education aligns with the broader goals of ensuring the nation's competitiveness.

What do you plan to convey to graduates at this week’s commencement ceremony?

My message will center around celebrating the graduates' remarkable achievements and emphasizing the graduates' role as future leaders and contributors to research and innovation, urging them to stay curious and adaptable. Their hard work, dedication and unique experiences at VCU have positioned them for success in their future endeavors. I hope graduates will embrace change as they step into the next phase of their lives. In a rapidly evolving world, adaptability is a valuable skill that will serve them well. Lifelong learning is an essential mindset, and I hope graduates will remember that education is a continuous journey. The commencement marks not an endpoint but a milestone in their pursuit of knowledge and personal growth.

When you think about your own undergraduate graduation, are there lessons that you wish you'd known at the time?

Reflecting on my undergraduate graduation, I would emphasize that skill sets and mindsets are both important for success. Mindsets such as entrepreneurialism, service, working across disciplines to solve real-world problems and teamwork are essential. The continuous pursuit of knowledge and embracing failure as a steppingstone to success, recognizing that learning extends beyond the classroom into the ever-evolving landscape of one's career, is likewise an important lesson. It is natural not to have every detail of your career path figured out immediately, and the journey often unfolds in unexpected ways. The curiosity to continuously seek knowledge is a powerful driver for sustained success and fulfillment.