VP Cramer: Commitment to Excellence Pervades UMN
Chris Cramer, vice president for research, on a lab visit learning about ongoing research at the UMN Center for Drug Design.
After 29 years at the University of Minnesota, Chris Cramer is stepping down from his role leading the research enterprise and departing for his next opportunity.
Cramer, PhD, served as vice president for research for nearly three years and as a member of the chemistry faculty with the College of Science and Engineering for decades, most recently holding the role of Distinguished McKnight and University Teaching Professor in Chemistry. His final day at the University is June 1. Cramer will head to Underwriters Laboratories Inc. to serve as the organization's senior vice president and chief research officer.
As he concludes his time in academia, Cramer takes a moment to reflect on his own contributions to chemistry, the strengths of the University research enterprise, and some common misconceptions about academic research.
In addition to leading the research administration, you have decades of experience as a UMN researcher, having joined the Department of Chemistry back in 1992. What was the most exciting research discovery you made while here?
Gosh, that’s pretty hard to answer, in part because in real life, research tends to advance in small steps—not in eureka moments that suddenly impact millions of people in some way the average person would immediately appreciate. So, I certainly do remember moments here and there, wrestling with a really puzzling problem that my research group was working on, to the point where it dominated all my thoughts—not just at the U, but driving to and from work, while cooking, whatever. And then, suddenly, I’d see either the solution, or a way to test a possible solution, and I felt that thrill that researchers feel when they’ve cracked a particularly tough puzzle. If I explained it to my students, and they started to nod their heads in approval, I knew it was solid—that was always the best.
This general point being made, if you were to ask what was my own, personal, greatest contribution as a researcher, there is an answer, and it’s not too hard to explain. I’m a modeler of chemistry, which is to say, I use computational techniques—and in particular, quantum mechanical techniques—to explain—or better still predict!—molecular properties, reactions, etc. In the 1980s, a limitation of such modeling was that the community was pretty good with molecules in the gas phase, but if you wanted to understand molecules in a solution (i.e., dissolved in a liquid, like water) you pretty much had to wave your hands and rely on intuition to say how the interaction with the solvent would change things. And it does change things—profoundly! Some reactions that would never occur in the gas phase occur almost instantaneously in water. Certain dyes change the color of a solution anywhere from red to yellow to green to blue depending on what solvent they are dissolved in.
So, a colleague (Regents Professor Don Truhlar) and I, working together, came up with an approach to include the effects of solvents in a very efficient way. We kept refining our models to cover all sorts of condensed phases—liquids, surfaces, even dirt. Our models became quite widely adopted, and even today a model we designed called “SMD” continues to probably be the most widely employed for these kinds of calculations, offering levels of accuracy that have really improved theoreticians’ abilities to make predictions.
Of course, when I say “we,” I mean Don, myself, and a lot of super-talented students and postdocs who worked with us, wrote the code, tested the ideas, etc. This kind of research is definitely a team effort.
During your tenure as VP, the University exceeded $1 billion in research expenditures for the first time—a milestone only a handful of other public universities have reached. What strengths do you see at the University that helped make this accomplishment possible?
First and foremost, there’s a commitment to excellence that pervades across the institution. When you set a high bar for yourself, you create an environment where everyone strives to make their best contributions. Mind you, measuring research excellence in dollars can be limiting in terms of recognizing contributions from parts of the academy that engage in discovery (or artistry) that doesn’t necessarily require large expenditures. I don’t want to suggest that those areas are not also terrifically valuable.
That said, if one does look at expenditures, then inevitably, big numbers require robust health science operations, because the National Institutes of Health has one of the largest budgets of all federal funders of research. And indeed, we are fortunate to have not merely an outstanding Medical School, but also colleges of Dentistry, Nursing, Pharmacy, Public Health, and Veterinary Medicine. Only three other schools in the US have all six of these health sciences assembled. Together, our health sciences’ high level of activity accounts for more than half of our research expenditures. In addition, though, we also have terrifically active programs in the natural sciences, engineering, agriculture, social sciences, education—and we are in a state that has historically been attentive to investing in its only major research institution.
There is a virtuous cycle that is created when a research school is strong—it begins to attract the best students and funding, so its reputation grows, and that brings the best faculty, and so on. The terrifying flip side to that, of course, is that one enters a death spiral if one moves in the other direction, which can happen if institutional leaders do not prioritize cutting-edge research—which is not cheap—as paramount. I personally think that the returns on investing in that priority are self-evident, but every new generation of stakeholders needs to be educated and convinced in order to maintain that commitment.
As it did in all aspects of life, the arrival of COVID-19 caused abrupt changes at the University, leaving the research community to adapt on short notice to an unprecedented situation. What did working through the pandemic teach us about the research process and how we approach it?
I don’t think there is a pat answer to this question, because the impact of the pandemic was so different depending on the nature of your research.
For my own group, a bunch of theoreticians who can work wherever there is internet, we may have become more productive (no commuting, no distractions!). Meanwhile, for those working with human subjects with whom they were prevented from interacting, everything may have come to a full stop until risk levels were judged to be low enough to resume their work. I think we did learn, however, that we could nimbly respond to the pressure of the pandemic in a way that put the safety of our researchers as the first priority, and I’m proud that we did not have a single example of confirmed COVID-19 transmission in a research lab or facility.
Moreover, with a few exceptions like the face-to-face human research noted above, we maintained an outstanding level of output, as judged by research spending, proposals submitted and received, and other measures. So, perhaps the take-home message was resilience. Mind you, that resilience was not achieved without cost—lots of folks endured a great deal of stress, and I won’t be sorry to see the pandemic in the rearview mirror. I do hope, though, that we learned some lessons about the different ways in which researchers can be productive, and that we will benefit from that realization in the future.
You often emphasized the concept that “Research is Teaching” over the past few years. Why is it so valuable for research experiences to be part of a student’s education?
In the end, with enough effort, anyone can master “knowing” the state of the art of a given scholarly field. That can be a somewhat passive exercise of simply absorbing (e.g., through reading) everything that’s been recorded or said about that field up until now.
What makes a researcher different, however, is that they use that knowledge base to identify questions that have not been resolved—or they see new ways to apply existing concepts that will lead to outcomes never before realized. That pushing back of the boundaries of current understanding—discovery, artistry, solving puzzles (it can come in many forms)—is a skill that develops with practice, and it is incredibly valuable because it prepares you for challenges to which solutions have not yet been found—I daresay all manner of challenges, not merely scholarly ones!
I’ve often used the quote that nonresearch schools teach from the textbooks of today—and they may do so incredibly well—but we, as a research institution, engage our own students in helping to write the textbooks of tomorrow. That’s the value proposition for students deciding what kind of institution they want to attend.
In your eyes, what misconceptions do people outside of academia have about university research?
Oh my … that could be quite a laundry list. I suppose the most common one would be a sense of irrelevance—of unlikelihood to impact their lives because the topics will be too obscure or specialized to matter. And, in fairness, some research is very abstract, but there are countless examples of work that seemed to have no particular practical relevance at the time it was accomplished but that went on to have profound impact on everyday lives—that’s just the nature of fundamental research.
Another common misconception is that research funding makes universities a “profit.” But, we essentially never are compensated for the full costs of our research—we need to subsidize every project with other funds. And explaining that is sometimes hard. If you say, “some tuition dollars pay for research,” some people will gasp and ask, “how can you be charging students for your research?” But, as noted above, the whole point is that we engage the students in research, and their faculty are some of the best teachers because they are doing that cutting-edge research. So, you can’t really separate the budget of a research institution into research and teaching—they’re inextricably intertwined, warp and weft.
Finally, and sadly, because we live in a time of great distrust in authority and institutions, I think some of the public believe that research is conducted without regard to ethical considerations and a dedication to protecting the welfare of human participants, animals, etc. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course—we put tremendous effort into fostering a culture of compliance and ethical behavior. Unfortunately, any lapse, even if inadvertent, is immediately castigated within an environment that is waiting to seize and amplify such instances. The only answer to that is to remain dedicated to inspiring trust through ongoing commitment to ethics and compliance.
Looking back on your time as VP, what aspect of leading the research enterprise did you find most fulfilling?
Well, I have to point to three quite different things, I suppose. First, I got inspired every day by the amazing people within the Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR) with whom I was privileged to work. The sheer talent and dedication of the team meant that we could—and did—do great things together every day. Each new project was approached with optimism, and every crisis was managed with determination. It sounds Pollyannaish to say it, I suppose, but I’ve never in my life worked with a more effective team.
Looking external to OVPR, I’ll admit that I also loved the many opportunities I had to just be a student again—to learn about areas of scholarship where I had no or very limited expertise—to grow my own knowledge base. And then, better still, to be able to represent that research in different places and sometimes help researchers to forge new collaborative relationships (or funding relationships!) by having access to others that they might not have originally thought to connect with. There was a certain kid-in-a-candy-store aspect to the job some days (not so much during the pandemic, alas), and those were fun days, indeed.
Finally, I really appreciated the partnership I had with other senior leaders at the institution, all of whom did have that dedication to the research mission that I noted as so important above. It’s easy for adversarial relationships in upper administration to develop when the institution is faced with resource constraints (as we always are), or when one feels slowed by compliance requirements (which OVPR is in charge of imposing in many instances). However, I always encountered colleagues willing to work together for the common good, and that was a blessing and to the benefit of the institution.