x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

PhD challenge for Masdar top man

The Masdar Institute's provost is struggling to get the school PhD certified.

Prof Joseph Cecchi says introducing PhDs would allow the institute to take on bigger research projects and collaborate with other institutions more easily.
Prof Joseph Cecchi says introducing PhDs would allow the institute to take on bigger research projects and collaborate with other institutions more easily.

ABU DHABI // The first, and current, provost at the Masdar Institute arrived in August and he is already grappling with an important challenge - getting the facility accredited for PhDs with the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research.

Prof Joseph Cecchi is no stranger to such challenges, after 18 years in management at the University of New Mexico, the last nine as dean of the school of engineering. Before that, he spent 21 years at Princeton.

"It's a big job," he said. "It's an honour and a challenge."

Masdar is orientated towards Master's studies, but in the coming months, Prof Cecchi hopes to see it widen its scope to include PhDs.

The institute is heavily focused on research output in renewable energy, by staff and the 240 students. In three years, it has had 250 refereed papers appear in international journals, including Science.

A PhD programme would enable the students' research to go much deeper, Prof Cecchi said.

"It would lead to the production of more intellectual property," he said. "They would be more sophisticated research projects. Students know much more at that point and learn more, so we're expecting more interesting research."

He said a PhD programme would allow the institute to take on bigger research projects and collaborate with other institutions more easily.

"We can also bring together multiple students and faculty, which will increase the impact of our work," he said.

Dr Scott Kennedy, the associate dean of research, agreed that PhD research was vital.

"They're longer-term projects and add a lot of value to the research," he said.

"The PhD candidates will mentor master's degree students as well, which adds to the institution. PhDs provide guidance and more continuity in a research programme. Students complete their master's in two years, but as programmes grow you need that long-term continuity."

Prof Cecchi has 63 academics working with him and he sees his job as keeping them happy.

"I see the role of provost as a people job; giving the people within the university the resources they need to operate and to ensure a high degree of collaboration can exist between them," he said. "One of the biggest challenges is ensuring everyone can work together and doing everything I can to keep the barriers away from collaboration across the disciplines and really giving faculty incentives for working together."

As well as one-on-one meetings, Prof Cecchi has already held two meetings with his team, minus the administrative staff, to keep his finger on the pulse of what needs to be done.

He said it was vital to know each academic's areas of interest in teaching and research, not only to help facilitate their projects, but to help in future hiring as the institution grows.

Prof Steven Griffiths, a member of the institution's management team, said it was now time, in the university's third year, for there to be a provost at the institute.

"The provost has a unique opportunity to bring the academics together, so it's important to have someone who will be full time, at the front of house, who can unify the themes of the institute into one coherent package," he said. "We've got a lot of academics now."

Previously, only one dean was overseeing the academics, but with eight departments now, the role must be unified.

Dr Kennedy said that because the institution was growing so rapidly, planning to quadruple enrolment over the next five years, it needed a strong leader.

"As we grow, we continue to require guidance; a cohesive vision for our academic progress. The key role for Prof Cecchi is pulling all that together," he said.

"Someone at the top needs to listen to those different aspects of the university so they will be aligned with each other. As we grow, add new academic programmes, you need to be sure the people we're hiring, the courses we're adding and the research direction we're taking, all support each other, and that's the key role of the provost."

mswan@thenational.ae