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Illuminating Knowledge

In the spring 2019 semester, UTA tripled the number of National Academies members on its faculty and successfully reached another important milestone on its trajectory to becoming the model 21st-century urban research university. By Dana Jennings

Since their formation, the National Academies of Science, Medicine, and Engineering have been the foremost authorities on impactful research in the U.S., providing expert advice on some of the most pressing challenges facing the nation and world. Election as a member of the National Academies is a high honor given only to individuals credited with making significant contributions that advance their fields of work.

For a university, having members of the National Academies on faculty is an indicator of a first-class, enriched, diverse educational and research environment. UTA had a longstanding goal to elevate the total number of National Academy faculty members to five, which would make the University eligible to be considered for the Texas Legislature’s National Research University Fund— also known as Texas Tier One.

This spring, the University reached that critical benchmark.

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A Season of Growth

Longtime faculty member Dereje Agonafer was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in February, bringing UTA’s number of National Academy faculty numbers to three. He joined Kenneth Reifsnider, another National Academy of Engineering member; and David Nygren, a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

In March, UTA recruited two top scientists to its faculty: Florence Haseltine, a member of the National Academy of Medicine, and Surendra Shah, a member of the National Academy of Engineering. The pair’s arrival cemented UTA’s status as a destination campus for renowned researchers.

For good measure, UTA announced in July that National Academy of Engineering member Jim Coleman would be joining the faculty. In the span of just five months, UTA grew its National Academies faculty from two to six.

UTA’s National Academies faculty members contribute tremendously to the University’s research and learning environment with their vision for discovery and passion for sharing knowledge that strengthens society.

While their work is packed with scientific minutia, each National Academy faculty member manages to focus on what really matters to them: the impact their work can have.

  • Jenkins Garrett Professor and Presidential Distinguished Professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering
  • College of Engineering
  • National Academy of Engineering member since 2019
  • Joined UTA in 1999


Dereje Agonafer’s election to the National Academy of Engineering highlighted his distinguished leadership, as well as his research on data center and computer cooling, which he says is critical for efficiency and device reliability. “

Our growth in next-generation devices has slowed down because of trouble with these devices overheating,” says Dr. Agonafer, a Jenkins Garrett Professor and Presidential Distinguished Professor. “There is a bottleneck in development, especially as it applies to heterogeneous integration, and it’s a significant challenge. It’s exciting to be involved in solving that challenge.”

While Agonafer is proud of his research and its impact, he is also proud that he has advised 223 UTA graduate students. He says that guiding these promising minds is his greatest passion.

A major reason Agonafer was attracted to UTA is the concentration of companies in the Metroplex. His continued collaboration with some of the biggest names in industry, like Facebook, has furthered the impact of his work. “

There is tremendous opportunity here for myself and others to do big things and form partnerships with these companies,” Agonafer says. “With my National Academy appointment, I’m going to be able to expand my resources and equipment significantly so UTA can be a major resource for the DFW area, Texas, and the nation. UTA achieving Tier One status is significant as we will be able to advance the way we help local industries grow and prosper.”

  • Presidential Distinguished Professor in the College of Nursing and Health Innovation and Executive Director of Health Research
  • College of Nursing and Health Innovation
  • National Academy of Medicine member since 1993
  • Joined UTA in 2019


Florence Haseltine joined UTA as a Presidential Distinguished Professor in the College of Nursing and Health Innovation and as executive director of health research. She has been at the forefront of health technology since the early 1980s and has led the way for advances in contraception and women’s research for over 27 years.

Dr. Haseltine is former director of the Center for Population Research of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), founder of the Society for the Advancement of Women’s Health Research, and a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors for her innovations in the field of reproductive sciences. “

In my years at the NIH, we were able to change the landscape of health research by establishing a focus on treating and researching women independently,” Haseltine says. “But of course, there is still more work to do.”

She was elected to the National Academy of Medicine in 1993 and says she has since realized how difficult it is to achieve that honor. “

The attention of the National Academies is naturally drawn to the think tanks on the east and west coasts,” Haseltine says. “With more National Academies members coming to UTA, we can draw attention to excellence in this community and elevate the faculty here.”

  • Presidential Distinguished Professor of Advanced Construction Materials and Director of the Center for Advanced Construction Materials
  • National Academy of Engineering member since 2006
  • Joined UTA in 2019


Surendra Shah, director of the new Center for Advanced Construction Materials and Presidential Distinguished Professor in the College of Engineering, says he is proud to be a part of the burgeoning engineering community at UTA—bolstered by four members of the National Academy of Engineering—because of the vital role engineers play in society.

Dr. Shah was director of the pioneering, interdisciplinary National Science Foundation-funded Science and Technology Center of Excellence on Advanced Cement-Based Materials at Northwestern University. He is world-renowned for his research on cement- based materials and is currently leading a revolution in nanomaterial applications to concrete. “

As more people migrate to urban areas, we need reliable infrastructure while also being mindful of the environment and sustainability. That’s what I strive to do in my work,” Shah says. “The administration at UTA is supportive of that vision and is allowing me to combine disciplines to achieve it.”

Shah is a foreign member of three prestigious academies: Chinese Academy of Engineering, Indian Academy of Engineering and Athens Academy.

He says membership in the National Academies enhances scholarship because of the interaction it promotes, though he is eager to see more women and young scientists join to broaden and strengthen the perspectives offered.

  • Presidential Distinguished Professor and Director of the Institute for Predictive Performance Methodologies
  • College of Engineering, UTARI
  • National Academy of Engineering member since 2004
  • Joined UTA in 2015


Kenneth Reifsnider, Presidential Distinguished Professor in the College of Engineering and director of the Institute for Predictive Performance Methodologies, is an international expert on composite materials and has pioneered their development and application to aerospace structures, fuel cells, jet engines, and turbines. “

This has been my life for over 30 years,” Dr. Reifsnider says. “The field has changed dramatically from someone crawling around inside an airplane wing looking for a hole to a very sophisticated orchestra of instrumentation and methodologies.”

His work specifically focuses on understanding the performance of a product to predict its longevity and when it needs attention for upkeep and repair, with the ultimate aim of preventing unexpected failure and disaster. “

Coming to UTA in 2015 seemed like a good opportunity to pursue the most modern version of my work,” he says. “UTA is growing and evolving in a big way, which is exactly how I would describe the field I’m in. I knew I needed that in an academic community.”

  • Presidential Distinguished Professor of Physics
  • College of Science
  • National Academy of Sciences member since 2000
  • Joined UTA in 2014


David Nygren, Presidential Distinguished Professor of Physics, describes his work as “opportunistic physics.” He says he’s spent his career leaping between disciplines of physics, motivated by the pursuit of improving experimental techniques and devising not only new tools, but also new ways of doing things.

Dr. Nygren’s innovations provide a way of looking at the matter of the universe with the potential to take scientists back to the first moments of the Big Bang to understand the nature of creation. “

UTA has a first-class high-energy physics group, certainly the strongest group in Texas,” he says. “I was drawn to work with this group and was given tremendous support to start and pursue my ideas, which has led to great success for me and my team.”

What Nygren describes as his “buccaneering way of science” has opened up his work to other applications, like when he recognized that the techniques of particle physics could offer a real advantage in medical imaging and successfully applied them to mammography.

  • Presidential Distinguished Professor of Photonics
  • National Academy of Engineering Member since 2012
  • Joined UTA in 2019


James Coleman’s work is focused on bringing light and electrical signals down to the integrated circuit. “

For many people, a desktop computer seems to be an electronic computer. But just outside your view, that desktop connects to lasers and optical fiber systems,” Dr. Coleman says. “What we’re trying to do is build the same system down into the integrated circuit of your computer. Photonics depends on more and more data, more and more computation. Introducing light to this computation model brings another dimension to what currently exists.”

Coleman had been at the University of Texas at Dallas since 2013. Before that, he was the Intel Alumni Endowed Chair of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for 31 years and course director of the Integrated Circuits Fabrication Laboratory. He has also worked in the private sector at Rockwell International and Bell Labs.

UTA’s strengths in materials science, engineering, physics, and electrical engineering drove Coleman’s decision to bring his research to UTA. “

My interest is in developing a photonic research presence here in North Texas,” he says. “UTA is reaching a critical mass in working on photonics research. I hope to add to that and help it grow.” uta

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