Innovators at UC reshape future of higher education – and region
They are sophisticated innovators and passionate collaborators who translate complex, cutting-edge research into world-changing action. They have learned from the best, traveled the world, discovered career-expanding opportunities – and made their homes – in the Queen City.
Rising leaders and researchers at the University of Cincinnati, encouraged by the institution’s newest president, Neville Pinto, focus not only on making a difference in their classes and the lives of their students but also in doing so in their communities and the world.
“We are determined to lead urban public universities into a new era of innovation and impact,” said Pinto. His appointment to the UC presidency in 2017 marked a homecoming for the former chemical engineering faculty member and administrator who had spent the previous six years in leadership posts at the University of Louisville.
He explains how UC’s institutional vision, dubbed “Next Lives Here,” infuses the university’s investments, both in and out of classrooms, as it energizes faculty, staff and students. “At its essence, we are creating a mindset and culture of boldly leaning into the future, creating new opportunities and solutions in the process.”
With work stretching across the region and around the globe, these UC change makers embody that “Next Lives Here” vision as they illuminate the potential, and the far-reaching impact, of a dynamic, community-driven, research-intensive university.
– By Elissa Yancey
Pinto, a native of Mumbai, India, made history when he was named UC’s 30th president. He is the first president to rise from the ranks of UC faculty since Herman Schneider – founder of cooperative education – was hired for the top role in 1928. And, like his 20th century predecessor, Pinto continues to build an impressive track record of innovation and impact.
Pinto’s engineering research bona fides won him the respect of his peers and his superiors: The award-winning teacher and mentor holds multiple patents. He was elected to the National Academy of Inventors in 2010, one year before he left UC to become dean of the Speed School of Engineering at the University of Louisville.
There, he forged inventive collaborations with businesses, including General Electric, as he increased enrollment and built meaningful opportunities for students and faculty, helping them turn research into action.
Pinto brings that innovative drive to his efforts at UC, in both fresh and familiar ways. He points to the 1819 innovation hub on Reading Road, now taking shape in the former Sears building. “It represents an immense opportunity to open our doors wide to businesses and nonprofits so they can partner with our faculty and students to think and work in more innovative and creative ways,” he said. “We want to create an Uptown innovation district along Martin Luther King Drive that will be a regional destination for ‘Next Lives Here’ thinking, making, doing and discovery.”
And, like predecessor Herman Schneider, Pinto understands the value of cooperative education. New Co-Op 2.0 initiatives, he explains, have an ambitious goal of doubling the number of students participating in co-ops and internships.
“Work happens anywhere, anytime, and that opens the doors of cooperative education to endless possibilities,” Pinto said. “We have a team at work with representatives across the university and with partners externally to explore what this new paradigm will look like.”
As he leads an institution with a reported $4.2 billion impact on a 16-county region, Pinto said it is critical to share the many benefits of a public research powerhouse with the communities it serves. “I think people don’t always realize what a driving force the University of Cincinnati is right here in our hometown.
Building, making and doing come naturally to Stephanie Sadre-Orafai. In her first year as a professor at UC, she began building bridges between the College of Arts & Sciences and the College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning as she co-founded a new certificate program, Critical Visions.
She forged collaborations in and outside of her home department of anthropology and pushed students from all disciplines out of their comfort zones as they talked about race and belonging in the United States and the ways that visibility and representation matter. The students, and her colleagues, loved it.
“The kinds of questions I ask as an anthropologist about race, visual culture and social justice are shaped in large part by my family background and experiences growing up Iranian-Mexican-American in the South,” said Sadre-Orafai. She earned an undergraduate degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and advanced degrees from New York University.
Sadre-Orafai has curated exhibits, organized symposia and exhibited her own creative works, as well as published extensively in anthropology journals and fashion and photography publications. The mostly coastal scholar was pleasantly surprised when she visited UC’s campus for an interview.
“I was impressed by how committed the university was to the kind of interdisciplinary work I wanted to do,” she said. “There are so many amazing people on campus and in the community to work with to make immediate, meaningful change that extends beyond the university.”
That meaningful change also impacts students, said Sadre-Orafai, who has won accolades from students, faculty and community partners. “We are training students not only how to think critically about power and visual culture,” she said, “but also how to transform both.”
Patrick Ray’s passions for traveling, problem-solving and family run deep.
“My grandfather fought in World War II, where he chased the Desert Fox around North Africa, and then raised his children for a while in South Asia and East Asia, where he was stationed after the war,” Ray said. “He fell in love with the Burmese people and always wanted me to know what a beautiful world it is out there, and how much we have to offer if we choose to engage. So I guess it’s in my blood to want to wander outside the United States and assist citizens of other countries as they build the civil infrastructure they can be proud to hand down to their children.”
The assistant professor grew up in a fishing town on the North Shore of Massachusetts and took his own family abroad to work as a water systems engineer and economist in Jordan, where he served as a Fulbright Scholar. His work also has taken him to Indonesia, Kenya, Lebanon, Mexico, Nepal and Yemen.
“Water resources development and adaptation to a rapidly changing world – climate and otherwise – are my specialty,” he said. “It’s a joy for me to work on challenges associated with flood, drought, navigation, water quality and energy generation – here in the United States and everywhere else that extends me the invitation.”
UC extended an invitation for Ray in 2017, offering him a chance to move from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and live closer to his brother, who had settled in Indiana. It also offered exciting professional opportunities. “I didn’t realize until after I accepted the job what a tremendous legacy this place has in environmental engineering,” Ray said. “Now that I’m here, I’m more proud every day.”
Ray, a former Massachusetts Institute of Technology Climate CoLab Fellow and prolific water resource management scholar, quickly found a new passion in his new home. “I’ve fallen in love with the Ohio River,” he said.
The largest river by flow in the United States is also rated by the Environmental Protection Agency as the most contaminated surface water body in America. It provides an ideal and important opportunity for an engineer whose novel approach to ensuring water safety and security has been adopted by the World Bank. In addition to international recognition, it earned him an invitation to present at the White House earlier this year.
“It is a river with consistent flood and contaminant spill problems,” Ray said of the Ohio. “It is also the water my two young boys drink every day. Though a large number of excellent institutions look after the river, there is, to my understanding, far too little coordination among them.” Ray aims to change that and is connecting many existing groups to help develop a software tool for improved river management. “If we’re successful, we’ll be able to use the tool to manage the multidimensional risks facing the 25 million people of the Ohio River watershed, with outcomes like cost-effectiveness, resilience, ecological sustainability and safeguarded public health. If we’re successful, that would be really terrific,” he said.
Students, colleagues and the community are taking note. Just this summer, Ray was named the American Water Resources Association’s 2018 A. Ivan Johnson Outstanding Young Professional.
“I feel no limitations in what I can achieve here in my work,” he said. “I am able to recruit the best students in the world to work with me here. The city is lively and fun. My children are making great friends, and my wife works at the second-best Children’s Hospital in the USA. I am lucky.”
In less than a decade at UC, Jennifer Krivickas has helped reshape the library at the College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning, where she serves as head. She also has created multi-year, multidisciplinary classes that have given students rare opportunities to work with museum professionals. And she has developed new humanities-centric approaches to supporting faculty and student research across disciplines.
“I was trained to be a collector and keeper of knowledge,” said Krivickas, who received an undergraduate degree in psychology from Harvard University and a master’s in library science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She worked in libraries and collections at both Harvard and Yale before moving into the DAAP library leadership position in 2009. She added the new assistant vice president role to her plate in 2016. “Now, in research development, I am no longer on the back end of knowledge development, but on the front end,” she said. “I am the gardener of ideas.”
While Krivickas continues to rethink what libraries can offer their users, she also led efforts to create the university’s first Research and Innovation Week in April. The result drew researchers, regional leaders and the general public into conversations about cutting-edge water monitoring technology, the impact of community design projects on urban development and building a smarter, more connected region.
“The work I do with the Regional Smart Cities Initiative and Smart Cincy has led to UC researchers making connections that turn research into reality,” Krivickas said. She notes deeper and expanded efforts to partner UC’s talent with a wide range of governmental, industry, nonprofit and community leaders.
“Cincinnati faces many challenges,” she said. “And when I can help connect UC researchers who have the talent, desire and grit to tackle the societal problems we face, I feel I am helping improve the quality of life for people here in Cincinnati and our region.”
Dr. Oluwole Awosika brings more than an elite academic and professional pedigree to his work as a neurologist and rehabilitation specialist in UC’s College of Medicine. He brings a deep and personal understanding of the importance of patient care and the cutting-edge research needed to advance its success.
Before he earned bachelor’s degrees in neuroscience and physiological science from the University of California at Los Angeles; before he earned an M.D. at the University of Illinois’ College of Medicine; before he completed a neurology residency at Harvard Medical School and a post-doctoral fellowship at the National Institutes of Health focusing on post-stroke brain rehabilitation, he was an immigrant with a serious case of malaria.
The scientists who diagnosed and treated him inspired his life’s journey. “Since that time,” he said, “I knew I wanted to be a doctor who aims not only to provide the best care for his patients but also to contribute to the advancement of medicine.”
While training at Harvard and working as a fellow at the National Rehabilitation Hospital, Awosika saw many patients recovering from brain injuries. “I was challenged and humbled by the fact that the rate of neural recovery was slow, and the extent of recovery was limited,” he said. “This realization was the driving force behind my decision to focus my research and career development on investigating innovative and readily translatable ways of promoting neuronal and functional recovery.”
When it came time to make his post-NIH career move, Cincinnati was his top choice. “I was in search of a strong, nurturing and collaborative academic environment where I could further develop my research,” he said. “The University of Cincinnati has an extensive record of conducting and leading innovative and cutting-edge stroke research.”
Add the internationally recognized multi-disciplinary team of researchers at UC – including neurologists, physical and occupational therapists, speech therapists and others – and Awosika was sold.
As co-director of UC’s Neurorecovery Lab and the Stroke Recovery Research Team, Awosika has pioneered therapies that have helped patients recover mobility years after strokes, making life-changing strides they never thought possible.
For Ohio native Stephen Slaughter, blending art with architecture is an important part of marrying form and function. After earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in architecture from The Ohio State University, he built a successful career in California. Family, in the form of his father’s failing health, brought Slaughter back to Ohio and into a new career at UC.
Inspired by mentors like Peter Eisenman, who designed the main DAAP building on UC’s campus, Slaughter was trained to consider all of the end users of buildings and other structures. “We were conscious about designing beautiful, accessible, sustainable spaces for everyone,” he said, “from the people who would visit on a day-to-day basis to the people who cleaned the building.”
In Houston and Los Angeles, Slaughter worked on public projects with residents and nonprofit organizations. Those collaborations planted seeds for his work with youth in Cincinnati, both in DAAP training programs and in the community.
The ability to be a part of MetroLab, a public interest design-build program that pairs UC students and professors from various disciplines with community partners, added to Cincinnati’s appeal, said Slaughter. He also serves on the board of Elementz, an urban arts center in Over-the-Rhine. He said connecting youth from Elementz with architecture students sparks conversations and understanding across differences, as well as inspiring architecture projects that are informed by real-world needs.
“Through MetroLab, I work to have a positive impact,” said Slaughter, who has helped lead a summer DAAP camp for 13 years. He relishes the opportunity to create a pipeline for students who otherwise might not have considered careers in architecture. “I want to change how architects approach working with communities and to provide pipelines for youth interested in architecture,” he said.
Former middle school teacher Kathie Maynard moved to Cincinnati nearly two decades ago. Since then, she has broken new ground in connecting public school students to post-secondary learning opportunities at UC.
A first-generation high school and college graduate, Maynard carries a personal understanding of poverty and the difficulty of navigating educational systems. “I also understand the power of champions in overcoming these barriers and challenges,” she said. “I wake up every day passionate to create systems of support, so more of our city’s kids have greater access to the increased opportunities education can provide.”
Maynard grew her academic muscle in Cincinnati; she earned her master’s and doctoral degrees at UC. “UC has provided me the right supports and networks to become a change maker working to transform public education for the region,” she said.
That continuing transformation requires leadership on and off campus as she navigates a growing list of partnerships. Her extensive efforts in leading the Greater Cincinnati STEM Collaborative and the UC Scholars Academy earned her the first associate deanship of innovations and community partnerships, a position she relishes.
The collaborative works to prepare more students for careers in science, technology, engineering and math. It has engaged 3,000-plus students in collaboration with 150 partners in nine counties across three states.
Through the UC Scholars Academy, Maynard supports preparation, access and success for Cincinnati Public School students at UC.
When Reneé Seward saw a friend’s young son struggling to read, she went from feeling helpless to feeling inspired. It wasn’t long before the Cincinnati native and UC alumna saw the challenge as an opportunity to put her graphic design and problem-solving skills to use.
The result, See Word Reading, is an educational application, as well as a Cincinnati-based tech startup, that helps early-learning educators and parents provide personalized, fun and engaging lessons to improve children’s literacy skills.
“It is a way of teaching what sound belongs to what letter,” said Seward, who served as principal investigator on a federal grant to test the application in two Cincinnati schools – Mount Washington Elementary and the Academy of World Languages. “It engages auditory, visual and aesthetic senses.”
Early findings for the interactive digital tool proved promising for Seward, who discovered an eager audience among literacy advocates and teachers working with dyslexic students. She found support at UC from her team, which includes researchers from the College of Education, Criminal Justice and Human Services. “My hope is to have a startup company that produces new innovators to address educational challenges for all types of learners,” Seward said.
In addition to her innovative education-focused work, Seward – who earned a master’s degree in North Carolina – relishes her role as a graphic communication design professor, a position she has held since 2009. “I wanted to bring all my new knowledge back to my alma mater and help educate and influence the next generation of designers,” she said.