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  • Debra Bass

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  • Debra Bass

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Vice Chancellor Dr. Corinne Peek-Asa.

Culture of Collaboration Attracted New Vice Chancellor for Research to UC San Diego

As a celebrated researcher in her field, UC San Diego’s new Vice Chancellor for Research recognized the potential for exponential growth of the university’s vibrant research environment in the years to come. It was exactly the community that she wanted to be a part of and drive forward.

Corinne Peek-Asa is the founding director of a National Institutes of Health-funded International Trauma Training Program and leader in the field of traumatic injury and violence prevention. Her innovative research has benefited communities around the world.

She joined UC San Diego in January. As Vice Chancellor for Research, Peek-Asa manages UC San Diego’s annual $1.64-billion research enterprise, advises on research matters, promotes campus research programs, including a robust business and leadership development division, and works to create new opportunities for enhancing research activities and funding.

Below she shares her thoughts on the future of research and innovation on campus, as well as her own experiences and accomplishments that prepared her to thrive in this new role.

Q. UC San Diego operates a robust $1 billion-plus research enterprise. How does that compare to other universities?

A. For more than 13 years, UC San Diego has earned more than a billion dollars in research funding, which overall is over half a million dollars per faculty. We break records every year, and this year we reached $1.64 billion—more than a 60% increase in the last 10 years—in research dollars. That puts us among the top 10 universities in the country and boosts our ranking around the world. While this amount is staggering, the really important point is that it represents work that is solving some of our most vexing problems and transforming how we live our lives. This research portfolio includes very small to very large projects, and each of these is moving us forward in its own way.

Q. And what is the effect on students, faculty and the public?

A. The public benefits substantively from investments in university-based research. Universities are the only institutions that conduct the full range of research—from the most basic and foundational to applied—in an interdisciplinary environment that simultaneously investigates issues from many, many areas of expertise. We bring together artists, social scientists, policy experts, health experts and scientists to address our world’s grand challenges. For students, research investments provide more opportunities to work with some of the nation’s leading thinkers and to be involved in solving current issues affecting our world today. They learn firsthand how to conduct research, and also have employment opportunities in fields they aspire to work in. A vibrant research environment allows us to attract internationally renowned faculty and staff who want to work in an environment and culture that promotes and sustains their research. And as our Chancellor has said many times, our research portfolio is more than groundbreaking academic or intellectual discovery, which is invaluable on its own. Our research portfolio involves entrepreneurial collaborations that are creating jobs outside the university, creating new products for the marketplace and changing the way governmental agencies and utilities function.

Q. Not every university has an Office of Research Affairs. What makes UC San Diego different?

A. Research Affairs offices are a hallmark of the top-tier research universities. Securing and maintaining research awards with the very highest standards is extremely complex. We receive funding from every federal grant-making agency, many state agencies, foundations, companies and organizations. We must understand the rules and regulations, and maintain good relations with each of these agencies. We must also work with our faculty to ensure that proposals are developed according to procedures; that our work follows all ethical and compliance requirements; and that we continue to ensure a vital and supportive environment. The goal of our office is to support research by supporting researchers, so that we maintain our stellar reputation.

Our offices help ensure that research is conducted to the highest of standards, including ethical standards, protocol standards, and dissemination standards. To meet reporting requirements, our teams process a high volume of proposals and research agreements and provide experts in just about every funding agency nationally. We also support our very strong entrepreneurial environment and offer innovation experience and opportunities to students, faculty and staff, while also staying ahead of research trends so that we are investing in the future priorities of research.

Q. Can research keep growing at the rate of the last 10 years?

A. Absolutely. There are infinite problems to solve and opportunities to translate research to new problems, community solutions and products. We will never reach a point when we won’t have more to learn and more ways to apply new knowledge to solve problems. In so many fields we are just on the precipice, like nuclear fission. We are making great strides in so many fields from health to humanities to climate change. The possibilities are endless and fascinating, and I am excited to see what developments the next year of experimentation and collaboration will bring. For example, we are on the brink of completing an observatory in Chile that is being designed with the capacity to look back in time to the origins of the universe. We are sending cells into space to better understand aging and healing. Saying “the sky is the limit” is just not expansive enough for what’s in store for UC San Diego.

Q. What is your research background?

A. I am trained as an epidemiologist, and my specific area of expertise is in traumatic injury and violence prevention. Injuries are the leading cause of death in the U.S. for those aged 1 through 45: Injuries disproportionately impact the young. Globally, injury rates are much higher in low- and middle-income countries. And we have a lot of ways to reduce this burden. I focus my work on prevention, so I conduct population-based research on policies, programs, environmental approaches and behavioral approaches that can reduce the burden of things like road traffic injuries, intimate partner violence, traumatic brain injury, firearm violence, and things like that. I like this work because it is solution-oriented, and it is highly interdisciplinary. For example, I’ve worked with artists to prevent bullying and cyberbullying; engineers and urban planners to build safer streets; and policymakers and economists to reduce workplace violence. I also direct one of six NIH-funded International Trauma Training programs, where we focus on building research capacity, implementing prevention strategies, and improving trauma care. This work has been highly rewarding, and it has prepared me to take a broad, systems-based approach to supporting the immense research portfolio at UC San Diego.

Q. What’s next for UC San Diego research?

A. Well, we are on track for another record-breaking year for research funding and impact. There were more than 5,400 applications (worth approximately $5.9 billion) submitted by campus researchers this past year. That funding will come to fruition throughout the year. We won’t win all of them, but we have a track record of winning nearly one-third. That’s incredibly impressive for a 60-year-old institution, but we continue to distinguish our capacity for multifaceted, unconventional, interdisciplinary collaborations. Our researchers are so prized, and their work is so well funded because the university has a culture that supports knowledge and exploration without boundaries.

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