What makes Binghamton University different? How is this campus unique?
These are questions Gerald Sonnenfeld, the University’s new vice president for research, is pondering these days. As he researches the answers, he hopes to bring Binghamton’s differences to the forefront and capitalize on them.
Since July 1, he’s been educating himself about Binghamton.
“I’ve met with vice presidents and deans, as well as faculty,” he said. “I’ve spoken with business and federal agencies. There are a lot of positive attributes here. We have faculty who are excellent teachers and researchers.
“There’s interest in involving students in research, too,” he said. “Not just at the graduate level, but undergraduates as well, and that’s unusual. Our faculty embraces that opportunity, which is very positive.
“I’m learning what Binghamton’s strengths are,” Sonnenfeld added. “I see great strength in student involvement in research that every school tries for. This one already has it.”
With an overarching goal to support and expand the University’s infrastructure for research and scholarly activities, Sonnenfeld has looked within. He likes what he sees.
“We’re already ahead of the game in interdisciplinary efforts. That’s how we’re unique,” said Sonnenfeld. “When teams are effective and work together, we’ve done a good thing.”
Key to his new role is the University’s part in building – or re-building – the area’s economic base.
“We can’t realistically turn the whole economy around, but we can help,” he said. “We should have a role in showing the area’s differences and in offering opportunities nobody else can offer as well as we can.”
To move things ever forward, Sonnenfeld is focused on BU’s unique niches, with attention toward fashioning more through interdisciplinary activities.
“For the first time in my memory, there’s talk about budget decreases from major federal funding agencies, so we hope to succeed by offering what’s unique,” he said.
As one example, Sonnenfeld brings his own research emphasis to the University, as well as his successes in obtaining funding. He’ll serve as a professor of biological sciences and continue his research into the regulation of the immune system by the neuro-endocrine system, and how stress affect reactions.
Though it may be more difficult to acquire external funding today than in past years, he has brought several grants with him from his prior position at the Morehouse School of Medicine.
In combination, it all sends the right messages, he said.
“I’m a researcher and an administrator. It’s a balancing act, but an important one,” said Sonnenfeld. “It shows the faculty and students that I’m in the trenches with them.
“It helps in several other ways, too,” he said. “With Binghamton faculty having the best relationship with a research division that I’ve ever seen, I hope it helps my interactions with them and my ability to gain their respect. I hope they’ll see that I can help them do things because I’ve gone through it … that it’s not an inconvenience to be a researcher, but a necessity to fully appreciate and understand what researchers go through.”
To be a successful researcher and to garner external funding, good ideas are not enough, Sonnenfeld added.
“Yes, you have to have good ideas and a certain talent, but you also have to know how to market, and you have to be persistent and let no opportunity go unanswered,” he said. “Try, try, try and be willing to be flexible and be mentored.” Having personally experienced the difficulties of becoming established in the world of external funding, Sonnenfeld said he hopes to be seen as a mentor, in the sense of looking at novel ways to develop proposals.
“I started out small. I had one small grant for several years from a sorority that gave me the preliminary data I needed – something to build on,” he said.
As vice president, his responsibilities have become greater and he admitted he has a lot to learn.
“But,” he said, “just because I don’t know details, I can tell if a proposal is well written and the arguments are made appropriately.”