“Research is becoming a team sport.”

Martin Dunn, Interim Chief Research Officer and CEDC Dean, on Becoming an Engineer and Helping Achieve Goal 3 of CU Denver’s Strategic Plan

October 19, 2021

Martin Dunn, dean of the College of Engineering, Design and Computing and chair of the Strategic Planning Steering Committee, recently took on another role as interim chief research officer to assist with Strategic Plan Goal 3, to be internationally known for the university’s research and creative work. A pioneer in his field, Dunn brings to the table lessons learned throughout his career across and outside of the U.S., as well as a deep passion for the power of research.

CU Denver News sat down with Dunn to learn more about his background and what lies ahead for research at CU Denver.

Tell us about your career journey and how you arrived here at CU Denver. 

My whole life I’ve been interested in how things work and fit together. I’d take them apart and see how I could make them better. I was good at math and science, so I was given the advice to become an engineer. 

I grew up in Montana and received my undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering at Montana State University Bozeman. I started my career at Boeing in Seattle and during that time received my MS and PhD in mechanical engineering at the University of Washington. I also got married to my wife, Kelli. We have two grown boys who are both engineers—not by my doing.

Martin Dunn

I spent most of my career at the University of Colorado Boulder, where I was a professor of mechanical engineering, a department chair, and associate dean for research in the College of Engineering. In 2011, I moved to Washington, D.C. to work for the National Science Foundation, which funds the majority of academic research in the US. I then got the opportunity to move to Singapore and help start what is now the Singapore University of Technology. As the chief research officer, I was one of the senior leaders who helped start the university. It was a wonderful, difficult, and transformational experience.

After three years in Singapore, I knew I wanted to be in the U.S., and I knew I wanted to be back at a university. And, I knew I wanted to live in a city. I had fallen in love with cities when I was in Singapore, partly because of what I learned about the power of cities from an interdisciplinary research center we started there. which is known for its smart cities and technology. 

During my time in Boulder, I am embarrassed to say that I didn’t know much about CU Denver or even Denver as a city. When I started looking into the opportunity to be the dean of the School of Engineering, Design and Computing, it felt like the perfect fit.

Outside of work, what do you like to do for fun?

My wife and I love the outdoors. We ski together as a family. I like to play golf and I enjoy watching sports. As a kid I was a baseball Cubs fan, but now I’m definitely a Rockies fan.  I was once a Seahawks fan but am now a Broncos fan.

I love the energy and walkability of city-living. I didn’t own a car for years—I never needed to in D.C. and Singapore—but we recently moved, so I’ve started driving more, unfortunately. 

Goal 3 of our Strategic Plan is for CU Denver to be internationally known for our research and creative work. Where do we currently stand in our progress to achieve this goal and what’s next?

The vision team for this goal was extraordinarily thoughtful in identifying so many valuable things that we can and need to do. We also saw that we have many tremendous assets in place and really talented faculty and students, but we haven’t supported them at the level we need to in order to realize the institution’s research potential. 

When I was a young faculty member, a giant in my field told me that to be successful in research you need to do something good and talk about it a lot. As we move forward with Goal 3 and build distinction, we need to identify what we want to do and be good at as an institution, and start talking about it a lot. During my career, I have seen the most impactful research transition from an individual sport to a team sport. We need to recognize this, harness the talent of our people, and start better organizing around teams and investing in team skills needed for research. 

We will pursue societal grand challenges as an organizing principle for the interdisciplinary teams we will nurture and support. At the same time, we will invest in building our research infrastructure so that it lifts all researchers across CU Denver. Our thinking aligns strongly with national trends in research. For example, the National Science Foundation uses a model called convergence research that focuses not only on advancing a field but doing it in collaboration with stakeholders. The model has three parts:

  1. A focus on an important societal challenge
  2. Collaboration with stakeholders within and outside of academia, e.g. with public and private sectors and NGOs (non-government organizations) (meaning research isn’t conducted in just one lab)
  3. Deeply interdisciplinary

We already have pockets of great strength across the university, and if we can more strongly align ourselves with this new way of thinking, we will attract significant funding.  Importantly, I think we can differentiate ourselves by dovetailing this with our passion and commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion as we collaboratively live our ambitions to become an equity-serving institution.

Tell us about the upcoming Strategic Plan Research Symposium at the end of October. What excites you most about this opportunity?

The two-part event will serve as a broad funnel of ideas and expertise. First, our community members will come together to share their ideas and organically self-assemble into groups that aggregate individual expertise into a broader concept. We will ask them to come back to the second session with these broader ideas to share with our research community. These sessions are really about bringing diverse perspectives to the table and building on ideas. This is where innovation happens.

Coming out of these first two sessions we will invite groups to develop proposals for themes that seem most compelling for us to invest in and pursue. We plan to select proposals for a first round of investment in March 2022. Investment will include seed funding and institutional support to build and strengthen the teams and secure extramural support. 

Tell me a little bit more about the pandemic research awards. What are these and what types of research can our campus community expect to hear about as part of them?

Our community got hammered by the pandemic in many ways. We talk a lot about how we flipped our classrooms, kept students safe, and continued delivering course and services virtually. Our researchers were remarkable, too. They took their skillsets and used them for the greater good to help protect our community. That includes designing and testing personal protection equipment, finding ways to make buildings safer, addressing public policy, and understanding social and economic impacts of the pandemic. It also took a tremendous amount of energy to keep our research labs running safely. And, there was no roadmap to do it. 

We wanted to celebrate the efforts and the research of our students, faculty, and staff, so we asked all members of our campus community for submissions. We can’t wait to share what we learned. Keep your eye out for an upcoming CU Denver News story.