Vice President Research Edmund “Ed” Synakowski is passionate about three things: nuclear fusion, economic development and interdisciplinary research.
He took care of the first one, spending 17 years in the Plasma Physics Laboratory at Princeton University. And with the latter two, as vice president for research and economic development at the University of Wyoming. Since August, Synakowski has headed the Research Division at UNLV – a suitable landing point for a nuclear researcher given Nevada’s atomic history.
He began to meet deans and professors to better understand the research culture at UNLV. Synakowski says that for a university to be at the pinnacle of this century, it will need to identify challenges that require interdisciplinary approaches while being agile in partnering to form teams that can meet those challenges.
Most of Synakowski’s career has been spent at Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) at Princeton University, a national laboratory where he did research on nuclear fusion energy before moving on to directing and to the administration of a research group.
After 17 years at PPPL, he became Director of the Fusion Energy Program at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory before heading the Office of Fusion Energy Sciences at the US Department of Energy. After eight years there, he set his sights on higher education, attracted by the potential of universities with broad research portfolios and a commitment to research to address some of the most complex and pressing challenges of the world. company.
How did you make your transition to higher education?
I made the transition informed by my own research and numerous conversations with fellow academics, advisors and other mentors. I was fortunate to have had great mentoring. I always thought I had a perspective and a temperament that would suit academia well.
It is important for me to be part of an institution that sees research as something to be interpreted in a broad sense, including STEM fields but also the arts and humanities. Many universities provide a toolkit with all of these attributes, and UNLV has one of the most compelling resource sets in this regard that I have seen. The leadership challenge that attracts me is to work together to have the greatest impact, societally and educationally, with these resources.
Potential opportunities between the federal government and UNLV
Congress is currently working on budget legislation that could dramatically increase spending on STEM research programs administered by the NSF (National Science Foundation), NIH (National Institutes of Health), DOE, and elsewhere. Combined with my federal experience, I hope I can bring something to the table to help catalyze some of these new opportunities and to ensure that their pursuit is in the strategic interest of the UNLV.
There is also untapped potential in how we engage with our federally funded national laboratories and facilities in the Southwest and across the country. This ultimately has to be done against a strategic framework for research and scholarship that has buy-in from leaders here, as well as faculty.
What attracted you to this role at UNLV?
There are a lot of aspects of UNLV that I have found compelling. First, throughout the interview process, from the students and staff in the Research Division, to the provost and the president, everyone I have met has been genuine and upbeat. I learned about institutional challenges in my conversations, but all of these discussions have taken place within the framework of institution-wide optimism.
Second, I was drawn to UNLV’s ambition to do great things. It is committed to growing research and innovating in order to be an undisputed national force in research and education that harnesses the potential of research in its mission.
Third, the diverse cultural representation of the institution is for me one of the most compelling aspects of this campus. The UNLV has the opportunity to show, at a particularly important time of vigorous social push in this country, how such make-up can and should be a resource for the good of society.
And finally, the tremendous growth of UNLV in a short period of time raises questions that really interest me. On the one hand, how does his own sense of identity evolve? There is a great opportunity as a RVP to work with others who see the same challenge and the same opportunity to help shape a future UNLV that is truly remarkable and impacting at the national level. In all this, the institutional youth of the UNLV is an asset. To have such a platform from which to work with others on these matters is a great privilege and can provide me with a fulfilling and fun working life at the highest level.
Listening both inside and outside of my own office is a big priority. I assess the needs regarding the services of the research office, how this very important category of work is experienced on campus and the experience of working in my office. I have met an exceptional group within the research office that is service-oriented and working hard to implement processes that can accommodate a research business that is much more vigorous than it is today. But it’s understandably tense, a consequence of the rapid institutional growth here.
The UNLV will not realize its potential as a research-intensive institution without excellence in this area, and I need to understand the resources required to ensure continued excellence. For that, I got a good head start by learning from Lori Olafson [who served as interim vice president of research]. The university owes him a great debt of gratitude. She left her position in the design office in good shape and with a clear understanding of the challenges ahead.
First day on campus
I was greeted by my office staff, which I looked forward to from my talks and many visits over the summer. My staff kept my schedule simple, so I had the rare chance to take a deep breath or two and take it all in. I met my RVP associates and assistants, and was quickly drawn into the practical challenges that are on our plates. I was also very happy to enjoy the renewed vitality as the students moved around campus with great energy as they were clearly happy to be here after a year and more of the toughest.
Leaving the small college town of Laramie, Wyoming for the bright lights of Las Vegas is a big decision for you and your wife, Ellen. What inspired your decision?
All of the positive attributes of UNLV that I described earlier were part of the decision to pick up and move. The optimism and authenticity that I encountered in my discussions leading up to my decision were also of crucial importance. There is also a personal value in being in a transportation hub, which will allow for a closer connection with our children as they get on their feet.
One final piece that makes me smile is the social connection opportunity here. I play the trombone. I have performed in the Washington, DC area with a swing quartet as well as a few groups from Dixieland. It was really a stretch for me, playing with really good talent. The solo would take me out of my workspace. Before that, I always enjoyed playing with symphony groups, community orchestras, big bands, brass quintets and even a British marching band that I was in on the ground floor of its Princeton debut. All of this has made it possible to form and maintain deep friendships over 35 years or more. These groups also provided me with excellent airstrips as I moved between towns and villages. I think the opportunities for me here to be part of the music scene are huge, maybe as rich as anywhere in the country.
Generally speaking, I understand that Las Vegas has a lot, a lot of people who have moved here from elsewhere. I have to believe that many of them are looking to be part of the communities themselves, and so I hope we find open doors in creating our own new relationships with people.
What’s the most “Vegas” thing you’ve done?
We ate at some fantastic restaurants. We are still handling the logistics of our move and moving into our tiny apartment, which meant we had to go out and have some great dining experiences. I know it sounds hard, but someone has to do it!
What was your best surprise when you moved to Las Vegas?
I’ve been told that Las Vegas is more than the Strip, but I was surprised to learn how much more there is. Having said that, I think the Strip and all it stands for is exciting and fun. I’m a little surprised to find myself smiling every time I meet the lights and the buzz, and think about the intensity of the hospitality and entertainment scene and all the possibilities that come with it. Ellen and I have already seen two fantastic jazz performances at the Smith Center.
Another aspect of Las Vegas that came as a wonderful surprise was the extraordinary beauty of the area, ranging from Red Rock Canyon to views from the Henderson and Summerlin Hills.
Finally, after getting to know people, I’m not surprised at the welcoming ways of everyone Ellen and I have met. This is really the common thread running through everything that is appealing about this opportunity at UNLV and our move to Las Vegas.