UWM’s commitment to research has far-reaching implications for Milwaukee

Innovations ripple throughout local business community

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UWM now ranks among the country’s top research institutions, joining the ranks of Duke, Yale, Johns Hopkins and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
UWM now ranks among the country’s top research institutions, joining the ranks of Duke, Yale, Johns Hopkins and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

On Feb. 1, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee became a Tier 1 research institution, joining 114 other universities that the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching saw fit to classify as the most active research universities in the country.

The foundation releases classifications once every five years.

News of UWM’s new spot among institutions such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Yale and Duke thrilled university leaders.

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“This is the ultimate recognition for top doctoral universities nationwide,” wrote chancellor Mark Mone in a letter to students and faculty. “This is inspiring, gratifying and serves as validation of the remarkable impact of UWM’s faculty, staff and students…The wide-ranging array of critically-acclaimed research is UW-Milwaukee’s hallmark.”

Mark Harris, UWM’s interim vice provost for research, said the school’s new classification was proof its partnerships with private institutions to fund and facilitate research efforts were paying off.

“In the research world, this is a huge step in terms of recognition,” Harris said. “It should help us when we are out recruiting faculty, for example. Once you get them, that’s really the key to attracting really good students. It’s just the kind of overall recognition that really signals to everyone that we’ve moved into the big time.”

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Though UWM has significantly ramped up its research programs since 2010 with the addition of its Innovation Campus in Wauwatosa and the expansion of its School of Freshwater Sciences, the groundwork for its budding presence among the nation’s top research institutions was laid 12 years ago under the direction of former UWM chancellor Carlos Santiago.

UWM’s Innovation Accelerator in Wauwatosa opened in 2014. The university nearly doubled its research expenditures between the 2003-’04 academic year and 2009-’10.

Santiago took office in 2004 with a specific goal in mind: transform UWM into a research-oriented university.

During his tenure at the helm, UWM’s research expenditures increased from $36 million during the 2003-’04 academic year to $68 million in 2009-’10. The UWM Research Foundation was also established during that time, which has been facilitating corporate partnerships with local companies, as well as moving innovations that emerge from UWM laboratories through the patent and licensing process and into the marketplace.

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“First and foremost, our job is to provide talent to Wisconsin and the Milwaukee region,” said Research Foundation president Brian Thompson. “The research mission is linked very closely with our education mission. We have nearly 5,000 graduate students and we have 750 undergraduates that are involved in faculty research programs…so the research experience is very much a part of the educational experience.”

And those research projects have been making waves, or more accurately, studying them — in multiple forms.

UWM opened a $53 million, 92,600-square-foot expansion of its School of Freshwater Sciences building on the Kinnickinnic River in Milwaukee’s Inner Harbor in 2014. It also opened classrooms and labs at the Global Water Center at 247 W. Freshwater Way in Walker’s Point.

“We’ve been strategic about how we do that,” Thompson said. “We’ve got some key partnerships and structures that help facilitate those research programs. The water cluster is helping to pull together a lot of companies in the water area. The model is industry partners participate and they help steer the research directions.”

While much of UWM’s water research addresses issues locally, nationally and globally, university researchers have also been a part of breakthroughs with cosmic implications.

UWM chancellor Mark Mone talks about research at the university.
UWM chancellor Mark Mone talks about research at the university.

In February, the university announced UWM professors Patrick Brady, Jolien Creighton, Xavier Siemens and Alan Wiseman, along with 26 UWM students, were part of a scientific collaboration that gained international attention after confirming the last unproven prediction of Einstein’s general theory of relativity: that gravitational waves indeed exist.

The UWM students and professors who contributed to the discovery are part of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, LIGO, a collaborative project among researchers that analyzed data from two observatories in remote locations in the United States and detected gravitational waves still rippling through the cosmos after a collision between two black holes that occurred about 1.3 billion years ago.

“That one grew out of a long tradition at UWM of cosmology and interstellar research,” Thompson said.

UWM has also made significant strides in engineering, applied sciences and public health research.

The Research Foundation currently has a portfolio of 40 patents pioneered in UWM labs, Thompson said, and the school is in the midst of a push to promote entrepreneurship among students.

“For student entrepreneurs, we play a different role, which is to help them through the process,” Thompson said. “We’re growing our research program in ways that benefit Milwaukee. We’re growing our research differently. We’re leveraging our industry partners in the area and we’re leveraging our educational partners.”

Since the Research Foundation began 10 years ago, school researchers have engaged in more than $300 million worth of research projects with local institutions, Thompson said.

And that research extends into many areas. One researcher has synthesized a chemical compound that treats anxiety. Another is researching safer sleeping environments for infants. Through a partnership with the Milwaukee Fire Department, a UWM researcher is developing recovery programs that help injured firefighters return to work faster.

UWM engineers have also partnered with local water companies and health care organizations to develop nanosensors and biosensors.

“We’re structurally trying to link together these institutions in a way that they complement each other,” Thompson said. “UWM certainly has researchers of international prominence.”

The foundation’s and the university’s research programs have received funding from local institutions such as The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and Rockwell Automation Inc. Thompson said the university is continuously reaching out to the Milwaukee business community to forge connections that could drive research and put UWM innovations into local products.

“We’re strengthening industry partnerships in a way that improves the talent pipeline,” Thompson said. “It’s really about the faculty members at UWM. (The Research Foundation) is here to help — we’re a support organization. It’s an exciting time for UWM and I’m excited to be a part of it.” 

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