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Top Tier

In its quest to qualify for the Texas National Research University Fund, UT Arlington revamped its research portfolio and charted a new course for the future.
By Linsey Retcofsky

A FEW MINUTES BEFORE 5 p.m. on Aug. 10, 2021, James Grover heard the familiar chime of an incoming email. It was news from state officials. The next day, The University of Texas at Arlington would become just the fourth institution in the state to qualify for the National Research University Fund (NRUF), a mark of excellence in research and academics.

UTA’s interim vice president for research was thrilled. The distinction, often called “Texas Tier One” status, was hard-earned, and the promise of its announcement had kept the University’s research administrators holding their breath for weeks.

To become a Texas Tier One university, UTA had to reach or exceed a series of rigorous benchmarks established by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board for at least two consecutive years. These included surpassing $45 million in restricted research expenditures, awarding more than 200 doctoral degrees each year, having high-quality faculty, and other key institutional metrics.

For universities that receive the designation, the state of Texas provides dedicated support from the NRUF to enable their continued research expansion, advancement of high-caliber educational programs, and recruitment of world-class faculty.

Awarded to the state’s highest-quality research universities, Texas Tier One status stands as recognition of UTA’s commitment to improve the world through inquiry and innovation, securing its position as a preeminent institution for education, research, and discovery.

Dr. Grover, an ecologist, joined the College of Science in 1993, where he served as assistant, associate, and full professor of biology; associate dean; and interim dean. For the past few years, he has held dual appointments as dean of the Graduate School and as interim vice president for research.

Throughout his tenure, he has witnessed the University’s transformation from an emerging research institution to a powerful engine for innovation in the areas of health science, resource management, big data, environmental sustainability, and more.

“The breadth of research activity happening on campus is more than any one of us realizes,” Grover says. “The impact of projects led by our world-class investigators ripples across the globe.”

As he well knows, the transformation took a village to achieve. “One person did not accomplish this,” Grover says. “UTA’s research portfolio is the result of a years-long, University-wide effort that required a commitment to academic excellence from our faculty, students, staff, and administrators.”

The Road to Tier One Research

Throughout 2014 and 2015, the University planned and launched its inaugural strategic plan, charting an ambitious course to become the “model 21st-century urban research university.”

Given its location in the heart of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex—a region on the cusp of becoming the nation’s newest megacity—UTA made community partnerships an important part of the strategic plan, with the aim that such collaborations would create local solutions that could be applied to cities across the globe.

Megacities—metropolitan areas with populations of 10 million or more—face challenges of rapid urbanization, including sustainable growth, health care access, and resource equity. As members of a public university, UTA’s faculty, staff, and students believe their mission is to meet those challenges with vision and leadership, ensuring that the Dallas-Fort Worth megacity would be one that addressed critical issues before they overwhelmed the area.

After a months-long assessment, the University identified four distinct areas where it could contribute to the Metroplex’s growth through organized research: health and the human condition, sustainable urban communities, global environmental impact, and data-driven discovery.

The pool of professors and students who pursue scientific knowledge is increasingly diverse, and our diversity is a strength

The Strategic Plan 2020 announced an integrated institutional identity defined by innovation, diversity, and excellence. Multidisciplinary health science experts would form comprehensive research teams to address public health challenges and chronic disease. UTA engineers and architects would partner with city, state, and federal entities to solve issues of transportation and infrastructure, while their colleagues would engage with problems of resource management and environmental policy. Scientists at the frontier of information management would innovate systems to harness big data’s potential to advance human understanding.

Shortly after launch of the strategic plan, the University learned that it had achieved a major milestone: The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education named it to the class of R‑1: Doctoral Universities—Highest Research Activity, an elite category that was composed of only 115 institutions from among the nation’s best, including Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Johns Hopkins University.

As it worked to achieve the strategic plan’s outlined goals, the University would substantially increase its research impact through the formation of strategic partnerships, recruitment of world-class talent, diversification of funding sources, and investments into campus infrastructure.

Subtitled “Bold Solutions | Global Impact,” the Strategic Plan 2020 emboldened the University to reach its full potential and become an internationally renowned model for higher education.

“The strategic plan organized the University’s efforts in an unprecedented manner,” Grover says. “It provided the launchpad to thrust us into a new era of discovery.”

Setting its course for the future, the University united behind its mission to take on the greatest global challenges and become a leader among Texas research universities.

Moving Forward

For Grover, achieving Texas Tier One illuminated the evolution of UTA’s research portfolio.

“Over a brief period, UTA has blossomed from an institution with a limited research portfolio to a catalyst for economic, social, and cultural improvement,” he says.

“This milestone is not an end in itself. It is an indicator of an outstanding academic and research environment on the rise,” Grover says. “The Maverick nature is to stand apart from the crowd. UTA will continue to distinguish itself as a model for excellence in higher education.” i

  • Sahadat Hossain
Sahadat Hossain


Urban Sustainability

Solid waste management is one of the fastest-growing sustainability challenges to emerge alongside global urbanization. For one professor of civil engineering, the world’s garbage problem is personal.

From a very young age, Sahadat Hossain understood that trash was a danger to the residents in his native country of Bangladesh.

“Not far from where I grew up, there were open dump sites. When rainwater fell onto the trash, it would become contaminated, pass into the ground, and spread into nearby ponds where residents bathed,” Dr. Hossain says. “People were getting sick, but they didn’t understand why.”

As an adult, Hossain devised methods to simultaneously prevent waste pollution and maximize landfills’ ability to generate energy that can be utilized by neighboring residents. In a field experiment in Denton, Texas, he put these theories into practice. With colleague Melanie Sattler, professor of civil engineering, he developed and implemented a system called Enhanced Leachate Recirculation in the city’s landfill that boosts methane production to produce an alternative energy source. The operation helped Denton accelerate its landfill gas production and generate enough electricity to power 3,000 homes.

In June 2016, UTA named Hossain as the founding director of its Solid Waste Institute for Sustainability. Under his direction, the institute has provided training to waste managers from more than 90 countries, educating international waste experts in managing landfills, reducing the effects of waste on residents, and applying business tactics to address waste management and recycling.

In addition to cities in Texas, Hossain has collaborated with those in Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania, Kenya, India, Serbia, Colombia, and Brazil. As one example, the solutions he and Dr. Sattler tested in Denton are now being applied in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where a landfill slide killed 113 in 2017. The city signed a three-year, $5.9 million agreement with Hossain to help solve waste management issues caused by the exponential increase in its population.

As governments plan for rapid growth, Hossain says city managers should start by taking out the trash: “If a city does not have effective waste management practices, its operations can’t thrive. It could have a prosperous economy, affordable housing, and equitable resources, but if trash is everywhere, the population will suffer.”

  • Kayunta Johnson-Winters
Kayunta Johnson-Winters


Advancing Health Research

Since 2015, UTA’s health-related research has grown to encompass developments in disease prevention and management, cancer therapies, rehabilitative care, biomedical technologies, comprehensive gerontological care, and more.

Kayunta Johnson-Winters, enzymologist and associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, knows that to solve the world’s biggest health concerns, you must start small. That’s why she’s leading a team of student researchers in an investigation of F420-dependent glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (FGD), a tiny enzyme that keeps tuberculosis bacteria intact and makes the infection multidrug-resistant and a leading cause of death worldwide.

“We want to understand on a molecular level how FGD operates, since it is the target for further drug development for multiple drug-resistant forms of tuberculosis,” Dr. Johnson-Winters says. “Once we discover the mode of action of FGD, researchers can create treatments that more effectively target the enzyme and cure patients with drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis.”

Johnson-Winters’ laboratory is housed in the Science & Engineering Innovation & Research (SEIR) building, a collaborative research facility that opened on the south edge of campus in 2018. SEIR, which is divided into research neighborhoods, was designed to bring together teams from a range of disciplines to work in proximity to each other, promoting an open exchange of ideas. The building’s interior features glass walls that enable passersby to watch researchers at work in their laboratories, a concept coined as “science on display.”

For Johnson-Winters, the freedom for students and campus visitors to view her lab in action creates a powerful opportunity.

“As a scientist from an underrepresented background, I mentor a lot of students who are also underrepresented. My lab’s high visibility breaks mental and social barriers to STEM education,” she says. “The pool of professors and students who pursue scientific knowledge is increasingly diverse, and our diversity is a strength.”

  • Jonathan Asaadi
Jonathan Asaadi


The Future of Data

According to the Standard Model of particle physics, the universe should not exist. This impossible problem is what rouses Jonathan Asaadi out of bed every morning.

At the beginning of time, a massive explosion created equal parts matter and antimatter, an equation that should have canceled itself out, leaving behind a dark void. Instead, the universe teems with activity. So what tipped the scales in matter’s favor and created life as we know it?

Dr. Asaadi, associate professor of physics, believes the key to unlocking this mystery lies with the neutrino, a fast, nearly massless particle that more closely resembles nothing than something.

To observe the unobservable neutrino, he uses a particular type of time projection chamber, a particle detector that provides a complete, 3D image of large quantities of simultaneous subatomic particle collisions. During experiments, detectors collide particles 40 million times every second, simultaneously recording and producing 60 terabytes of data that must be synthesized and understood. To process the wealth of information, Asaadi and other high-energy physicists must innovate new computational technologies that can quickly identify patterns and make large datasets simple to understand.

“We are after information that is harder to find than a needle in a haystack. We are looking for a needle that is hidden in a pile of needles,” Asaadi says. “Our questions require very sophisticated methods for sifting through data to get to the fundamental science that we want to uncover.”

Asaadi is one of 10 faculty members comprising UTA’s Center for High-Energy Physics, the largest of its kind in Texas. Currently funded by a nearly $4.5 million investment from the Department of Energy, the team works at the leading edge of human knowledge, contributing to the world’s understanding of fundamental science and innovating the fields of data science, machine learning, and technological development.

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