In fall of 2005, Mary Lidstrom was just about to wrap up a nine-year run as associate dean of new initiatives in the University of Washington’s College of Engineering as she weighed an unexpected offer to become the UW’s third-ever Vice Provost for Research.
Her associate dean role was half-time and Lidstrom, a professor of applied microbiology in the UW’s chemical engineering and microbiology departments, was determined that if she accepted the role she would keep her research going. But accepting the position would mean giving up instruction - including a program she loved, teaching biology to engineers - and limiting some of her laboratory work. She negotiated a 75% position as VP for Research in November 2005, reserving 25% of her time to maintain her lab and research.
Since then, Lidstrom and her team in the Office of Research have made it their mission to support research by supporting researchers. Key among their priorities is helping faculty navigate and make sense of the bureaucracy, paperwork and regulations that come along with their jobs.
"Faculty spend way too much time on administrative issues," Lidstrom said. "We have a specific initiative to give time back to faculty so that they can do research, mentor trainees, teach and interact with students - all of the things that make the faculty job so amazing and their research so successful. It isn’t easy to achieve this goal in the face of ever-increasing regulations from the federal government, but because of the strong team we have in the Office of Research and with our partners across the university, we are making progress."
Now, after more than 15 years of providing that time for others, she’s taking a little for herself. Lidstrom will step down from her position on Aug. 31, 2021, with plans to return full time to the faculty, concentrate on her research, and establish mentoring and diversity, equity and inclusion programs.
"I’m looking forward to several years of pretty intense activity in these areas," Lidstrom said. "I’ve been putting these things off for 15 years, basically, because I haven’t had time to pursue them and now I’m going to indulge myself. It’s a little selfish, in some ways, but I’ve convinced myself it’s not selfish because I do think after 15 years it will be very healthy for the University to bring in somebody with new ideas and new perspective."
Lidstrom’s ongoing ability to keep her research in progress no doubt contributed to her election to the National Academy of Sciences in 2013. Her research team studies bacteria that live on methane, and they are working on projects that will increase sustainable production of fuels and industrial chemicals, while also removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere to help slow global warming.
The University’s research portfolio has grown from $996 million when Lidstrom took on her role to an astounding $1.63 billion in 2020. Over the past decade, the UW has received more externally sponsored research funding than any other U.S. public university, and recent global rankings that emphasize research place the UW in the range of sixth to 16th in the world.
Lidstrom is quick to credit the faculty and scholars for those accolades, noting that the depth and breadth of the UW’s expertise is rare among research universities and has helped the University weather the ebbs and flows of funding in any particular areas. That said, she has been successful in significant fundraising for research and researchers, and has played an important role in a number of high impact interdisciplinary programs in the past 15 years covering research, education and outreach.
"It is always true that research is about recruitment and retention of top faculty, and having a supportive environment for them," Lidstrom said. "A lot of universities have four or five areas of excellence and they focus on those. But here we have dozens. That’s what makes the research enterprise so strong."
Mark Richards, the UW’s provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, said it’s difficult to overstate Lidstrom’s contributions to the UW.
"She has brought strength and stability to our research enterprise during challenging times, including the pandemic and the several times in her tenure when federal funding and support of science have been uncertain," Richards said. "Moreover, Mary’s wisdom and savvy about the national and international research landscape have helped keep UW at the forefront of many fields."
Collaborative research - within the UW and with other organizations - has been a priority for Lidstrom, with 27% of UW research funding involving partnerships with other entities. Interdisciplinary research centers and institutes are also thriving across the UW’s campuses.
"What I knew before I came in is how collaborative researchers are at the UW compared to other places I’ve been," Lidstrom said. "It’s just in the culture here. That actually makes it easy for the VPR to do this job, because you can reach out and you can work with people and they are willing to discuss new ideas and to help."
Lidstrom, who got her start doing research as an undergraduate, said a hallmark of her academic career has been maintaining a tiered mentoring community in which students sometimes as early as high school are working in concert with undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, along with professors.
"I think it’s a very healthy environment for people to learn in, and to support diversity, because that’s really important to me," she said. "A significant amount of research funding at the UW goes to support undergraduate learning - hands-on, experiential learning. At a public research institution like the UW, you can’t separate out research and education, because they’re just inextricably intertwined."
The Frank Jungers Endowed Chair of Engineering, Lidstrom first joined the UW as an assistant professor in 1978, earning tenure and promotion, before going to Caltech in 1987. She returned 25 years ago as professor and took on the role of vice provost for research from 2005 to 2010. She served as interim provost for the 2010-11 academic year, and then returned to the Office of Research as vice provost.
As for what the next 15 years and beyond may bring in the world of academic research, Lidstrom expects to see changes in the research training and funding processes to make them more diverse.
"I think it must change and become more inclusive," she said. "I don’t think we have to completely revamp the whole system to get that to happen, but I think there will be some growing pains there."
Provost Richards will soon launch an internal search to find Lidstrom’s successor and will be seeking nominations of outstanding faculty leaders from within the UW for consideration.
Tag(s): College of Engineering o Department of Chemical Engineering o Mary Lidstrom o Office of Research