Prasant Mohapatra was recently selected by UC Davis Chancellor Gary S. May to serve as vice chancellor for research — taking a leading role over the university’s $847 million research funding portfolio and responsibility for supporting the translation of that research into knowledge and technology to benefit society.
Mohapatra officially started in his new position on July 2, transitioning (literally taking an elevator ride up three floors) from his previous appointment as dean of graduate studies and vice-provost of graduate education, which he served in for two years.
A computer engineer by degree and world traveler by curiosity Mohapatra looks to advance the framework of the research infrastructure at UC Davis with the goal of reaching $1 billion in annual research funding.
What interested you most about taking on this new role?
I have been always passionate about research and innovation, but the opportunity to have an impact in a broader sense appealed to me. Much of that appeal is based on what I have experienced and learned throughout my time at UC Davis and the many collaborative projects that I have been involved in. The talent and breadth of work at our university is simply inspiring.
Tell us a little about your research background and how you think it will help you in your role.
My research interests are in the areas of wireless networks, mobile communications, cybersecurity and Internet protocols. I have been involved in, and led, multiple large-scale collaborative projects including a Multi-University Research Initiative from the Army Research Office, a Collaborative Technology Alliance with 40 members and a Cybersecurity Research Alliance with five participating universities. Throughout each project I witnessed the unique impact that can be achieved through effective collaboration. I hope to utilize that experience to leverage one of the true strengths of UC Davis — our deep and broad interdisciplinary roots.
Has this involved experience with technology transfer and industry collaborations?
Yes. Because of the nature of my work, I have collaborated with multiple industry partners including Intel, AT&T, Siemens, Hewlett Packard, Raytheon and EMC Corporation. I have also been involved in several start-up activities and hold multiple patents. I find great pleasure in seeing research and innovation translate beyond the university’s walls and hope to uncover new mechanisms to support that process at UC Davis.
UC Davis is unique in its comprehensive breadth of disciplines. In what ways do you think we can further leverage this as a strength?
I believe there is an opportunity to further extend collaborations across all boundaries and focus on applications that will have impact of the future of societal sustenance. Multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary activities have become a new discipline by itself and UC Davis is perfectly positioned as a leader in this realm. Our office will work hard to ensure that the right services and resources are in place to fully leverage this strength.
Any preliminary thoughts on how to accomplish this?
One mechanism may be found in the creation of global centers of excellence that are aligned with emerging needs and our strengths. This may include strategic investments in “yet to mature” areas that require bold thinking and proactive action. I also see the opportunity to further develop collaborations with industry partners and to leverage Aggie Square as a platform for translation of new technologies and incubation of emerging startups.
What will be your initial priorities and short-term objectives for the first 3 to 6 months?
For me, it is important that I begin by listening and learning from the constituents of our office and the faculty and research administrators that we serve. I want to obtain an honest assessment of what their needs are and how we can improve our support. I have also been focusing on visiting each of our research centers to learn more about their opportunities and challenges. With this information, we will initiate an effort to formulate a strategic plan that aligns with Chancellor May’s strategic vision for the university.
What has driven you most throughout your career?
I love exploring bold and risky ideas — especially the ones for which we may neither have the expertise nor a complete understanding of the scope of application. I have found that pushing myself beyond my comfort zone and collaborating with others outside of my domain is key to opening new possibilities and inciting true breakthroughs. As a leader, I have learned that finding ways to align and fuel people’s passion with the larger vision is the surest way to achieve substantial impact.