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VCU’s vice president for research and innovation outlines plans for 2019

P. Srirama Rao, Ph.D., VCU’s vice president for research and innovation, is outlining his priorities for moving the university’s research enterprise forward in 2019.

Rao came to VCU in October from the University of Minnesota, where he served as professor and associate dean for research in the College of Veterinary Medicine and held a joint appointment in the medical school as a professor in the Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine.

P. Srirama Rao, Ph.D.
P. Srirama Rao, Ph.D.

For his first calendar year leading the university’s research efforts, he has outlined an agenda focused on enhancing the research endeavors of faculty, staff and students, bringing VCU’s discoveries, innovations and translational research to the public and improving collaborations with industry partners.

Do you have specific initiatives aimed at growing VCU’s research enterprise in the first year of your new role?

There are several key initiatives. I am starting with the most fundamental, which is ensuring that the mission of the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation as a catalyst for advancing the research mission of the university is clearly understood. First and foremost, we are facilitators of all aspects of research.

This means we must also be transparent and communicate clearly and effectively with all those engaged in the research enterprise — faculty, staff, fellows, students, administrators and leadership.

At an operational level, a key objective this year is to evaluate how [the office] is performing in its support of the university’s research enterprise and how we are positioned to support VCU’s research growth. I am committed to streamlining processes, including timelines, while maintaining quality and rigor. … Overall, the goal with all our operations is to be efficient and nimble in how we support the research enterprise. This means we also need to ensure we have enough capacity and resources to meet the needs of researchers in a way that it stimulates growth. To understand these needs better, I am having candid discussions with the leadership of schools and colleges across the university and with some of the researchers as well.

Focusing on growth potential, I am working to understand VCU’s research strengths, growth areas, opportunities and challenges that will shape our future. Neuroscience, cancer, pharmaceutical and material science, data science, community-based research, policy and clinical research, artificial intelligence, workforce development, etc. are all high-growth multidisciplinary areas involving multiple schools and colleges. I hope to have a better understanding of our overall potential as it is defined with the strategic goals for each school and college and how these intersect, support and advance VCU’s overall strategic plan, Quest 2025: Together We Transform.

What drew you to VCU?

I was looking for a place that was on the threshold for growth. I was looking at a place where there was a lot of excitement about who they were and increasingly looking forward to being societally transformational. There was something about VCU that caught my attention. First of all, just those letters inspired me. VCU makes me think, “we see you!” I just started to imagine what VCU meant to students, trainees, staff and faculty. My thoughts were that to be “seen” and to be “understood” was inspiring. And I started to read more about VCU and felt that the university’s mission was just that, to see, understand and inspire the people and leverage the transformational ideas and discoveries to shape future generations. I was interested and intrigued with the opportunity I felt existed here. I saw so much drive, enthusiasm and passion here.

Are you planning any initiatives that would help bring innovations and inventions developed by VCU researchers from the bench to the public?

At a research-intensive university, innovation is the primary driver. I think as a university, we have an important role to transform society through the discoveries that we make. It’s an obligation to our taxpayers and to the community who help us to be who we are, and we aspire to be much better than we are right now.

Due to trends of decreased governmental funding for research, we have to be more creative in how we develop new public-private partnerships. We need to create opportunities for our industrial partners to understand that we are easy to work with. This hasn’t always been true for universities. I want to improve many of our processes for how we collaborate with partners to show that we can work with industry in a way that they can perhaps partake in risk sharing with us in a way that would result in better and more creative licensing opportunities.

We also need to support startup activity. Startups are a vehicle that allow for further maturation of research and technologies that, while transformative, are often very early stage. Whether we license to industry or to a startup, our goal is to get these innovations to the best partner to develop them further to a point where they can have an impact on society.  

We want companies to be interested in coming on board early on and recognizing that our ideas are sharp enough to take the risk of investing. We are also working with faculty to validate and mature their technologies and move them to the next stage by providing or facilitating proof-of-concept funding.

Are you thinking of ways to drive and promote student research?

Our students are creative and entrepreneurial and we are thinking of how we can increase their experiential learning of how technology moves forward. We are looking at targeted opportunities to expose undergraduate and graduate students to research experiences by pairing them with faculty mentors. Besides traditional research in laboratories or in communities, we also have a unique opportunity to engage students by potentially leveraging resources of the VCU da Vinci Center, a collaboration of VCU’s Schools of Arts, Business, Engineering and the College of Humanities and Sciences, with the [Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation’s] Innovation Gateway and VCU Ventures. We will be focusing on cultivating collaborations between these entities and engaging students in opportunities for experiential learning.