TAMEST Member Profile: An In-Depth Conversation with TAMEST Board President David E. Daniel, Ph.D. (NAE)

Carlos Roberto Jaén, M.D., Ph.D.

TAMEST Board President David E. Daniel, Ph.D. (NAE) is a former Deputy Chancellor of the University of Texas System and previously served as the fourth president of The University of Texas at Dallas from 2005 to 2015. 

A civil and environmental engineer by education, Dr. Daniel got his start in private industry aiming to work on the engineering challenges that made a difference. Eventually, however, academia won back his heart and he got his doctorate from The University of Texas at Austin.

Though he loved research, Dr. Daniel slowly pivoted from a Professor and Department Head of Civil Engineering to becoming the Dean of the College of Engineering after being recruited to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Campaign. In 2000, he was elected a member of the National Academy of Engineering for his “leadership in developing the geoenvironmental engineering field, and major contributions to engineering practice involving landfills and waste containment systems.”

Despite a career full of demanding research and leadership obligations, Dr. Daniel has always found time to devote service and guidance to TAMEST and the National Academies. He has a passion to help research in our state and nation grow stronger and more inter-disciplinary. And he stays focused on fostering the next generation of researchers in Texas.

TAMEST connected with Dr. Daniel to hear more about his varied career path and leading TAMEST.

  1. Please tell us a little about yourself and your work.

After college I decided to go to work in private industry for three years in the San Francisco Bay area. 

I wanted to work on a challenge that was of national significance. At the time, the country was building nuclear power plants in great numbers, with no clear understanding of what it would do with the waste and spent nuclear fuel.  

I had the opportunity to work on a Ph.D. dissertation sponsored by the Los Alamos National Lab on what to do with radioactive waste materials and how to dispose of them safely, and that fit exactly what I wanted to do.

  1. Talk about your pivot from private industry back into academia and leadership.

I earned my Ph.D. at The University of Texas at Austin and decided almost on a whim to try an academic career. 

I always assumed that if it didn’t work out, I could go back into the private sector. However, I fell in love with academic life and with teaching students. I found a productive research path. I’ve been very fortunate to have conducted research that has had a national impact on the engineering controls for safe disposal of hazardous materials.

I wandered off to the University of Illinois Urbana-Campaign for 10 years and became Dean of Engineering. Then out of the blue, I was invited to serve as President of UT Dallas. I came back to Texas and spent 10 years at UT Dallas.

I closed out my academic career with three years of service in Austin as Deputy Chancellor and Chief Operating Officer of the UT System. I’ve been retired from full-time work for three years but remain active through TAMEST, National Academies programs, service on some boards, and engineering consulting work. 

  1. Did you plan to have such a varied trajectory to your career?

Well, for those who think they always need a five-year plan, I would use myself as an exception to that. I never had a five-year plan. I just always enjoyed doing the work that I was doing.

I really did just wander into academic administration purely by accident. I never had any aspirations to do so, but one opportunity after another appeared. I have gotten great joy from the experiences I’ve had. I don’t regret it at all, even though little in my career path was actually planned out ahead of time.

  1. How did you initially get connected with TAMEST?

I moved from Illinois back to Texas in 2005 and I remember going to my first TAMEST meeting in January 2006, which came the day after UT Austin won the football national championship and the Rose Bowl game. 

Of course, then U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison had attended the football game to show her support. I was floored to learn that she then took an all-night flight back from that football game and showed up bright and early the next morning after the game at the TAMEST annual meeting.

I remember thinking it was so impressive that a sitting U.S. senator would take a red-eye and not only show up at a scientific meeting but spend the whole day at the meeting talking with our members and engaging in conversation. I thought, wow, TAMEST must be a big deal and very important for her to do that.

I got off to a great start with TAMEST just by that experience. It has been such a great pleasure to meet an extraordinary group of exceptionally bright and knowledgeable people. 

  1. Now fast-forward to becoming TAMEST’s Board President in 2021. What vision do you see for the organization’s future?

There are lots of professional organizations that consume time. I think it is important for organizations like TAMEST to understand what its role is and what it can do for its membership.

I think TAMEST has exceptional convening power. When we bring people together to talk about an important topic – be it energy, natural hazards, or healthy communities – we are able to get some of the most important people in the world to come to our meetings and to share their thoughts and points of view. That is rather unique about TAMEST and also about the National Academies in general.

It’s important to me as the current leader of TAMEST to ensure we utilize that capacity and that we address the major issues related to science, engineering, medicine and technology. TAMEST will continue to facilitate as many of these types of discussions and conversations as we possibly can. 

  1. How has it been navigating TAMEST’s convening power during a worldwide pandemic?

My frustration is principally around our having to postpone our annual conference multiple times. This can feel like a handicap to our mission-critical work of facilitating networks and teams.

However, despite this challenge, TAMEST has really stepped up to make the most of the situation. We were able to offer online conversations and disseminate knowledge on the unfolding pandemic in real-time. The virtual workshops have typically attracted more than 150 participants – sometimes more than 350 people. 

This has enabled us the opportunity to bring people to our virtual meetings who would not have been able to travel to an in-person meeting. In fact, I’d say the visibility of TAMEST has only improved in the last two years.

I think that’s the valuable lesson we’ve learned from the pandemic. Video conferencing and digital workshops are to the greater advantage for TAMEST to share information and to facilitate conversations.

  1. Despite the pandemic, TAMEST has been able to move forward with a federally funded project looking into the research power of Texas. What can you tell us about that?

TAMEST is engaged in a project funded by the Department of Defense (DoD) in partnership with about half a dozen partners. The goal of this project is to strengthen the defense-related innovation network in Texas.  TAMEST’s role in the project is to identify differentiated research capabilities at our universities.

We have cataloged more than 440 current or ongoing research projects at our Texas universities with external funding of about $1.5 billion, and that’s just in three industry clusters: aerospace/defense, energy and IT/semiconductors.

For me, on a personal level, the most enjoyable part is getting to know some of these researchers and learning about their research projects. One of them, just as an example, was a researcher developing an easy-to-apply, nanotechnology-based coating material that goes on the windshields of aircraft that would stop a laser pointed at the aircraft from affecting the pilot or co-pilot’s vision.

I thought that was so cool. Especially, since you read about individuals with lasers on the ground interrupting and threatening air traffic. 

  1. What were the overarching takeaways that surprised you most from the project?

I would say that, for me, the main takeaways are an understanding of the depth of research in topics I didn’t know that much about. Once one puts together the whole collection of research capabilities in Texas, the breadth and depth of talent in our state are rather mind boggling.

I have also come to realize how keenly interested many of our researchers are not only in discovering new technologies but also in figuring out ways to manufacture these new solutions at an industrial scale. 

If TAMEST can encourage conversations between academic researchers and businesses, our hope is that good things will come to fruition that might not otherwise have happened. 

  1. TAMEST has 16 member institutions, but obviously, that doesn’t begin to fully cover the vast Texas research landscape. Why is it important to keep up these relationships outside of just our TAMEST institutions?

Well, TAMEST is limited to Nobel Laureates and members of the National Academies and while I would say that we are an exclusive club, we are certainly not a snobby club.

We don’t in any way pretend that we’re better or greater than anyone else, but rather, we want to use the leverage our recognition provides to reach the whole State of Texas, including institutions without any National Academy members. That’s one reason why we opened up our TAMEST annual meetings to the entire research community and not just our membership. 

In fact, recently TAMEST Executive Director Terrence Henry and I paid a visit to The University of Texas at El Paso (UT El Paso), which does not yet have any National Academy members, but really should. We had a delightful visit and I enjoyed learning about the extraordinary capabilities at UT El Paso. Just two examples are its Keck Center for 3D innovation and the Aerospace Center. 

  1. In addition to convening, why does TAMEST devote so much time to nurturing the next group of great leaders in research?

From the very origins of TAMEST there were two things that I think were front of mind for co-founder and TAMEST Honorary Chair Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. The first was increasing federal research funding in Texas and the second was looking into how we might collaborate and work together to foster an increasingly competitive research base in our state.

We were fortunate that Edith and Peter O’Donnell as well as The O’Donnell Foundation supported the creation of the O’Donnell Awards early in our organization’s history to recognize up and coming talent. Remarkably, approximately one-fourth of all the early-to-mid-career researchers who have been recognized with O’Donnell awards went on to National Academy election.

We also have our protégé program, in which our members can invite rising stars to our meetings, where they can get to know National Academy members in Texas. Our hope is by shining a light on the exceptional researchers in our state, it will increase the number of Texans nominated into one of the National Academies. 

  1. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I just smile whenever I think of TAMEST, and my mind immediately goes to the people. There’s not a more exceptional group of people that I have spent time with than TAMEST Members. We come together, I think, with a common purpose of promoting the greater good.

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