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July 13, 2021 | Tom Ballard

PART 2: UTC’s research focus is on areas that will be relevant in five to 10 years

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final article in a two-part series based on an interview with the Vice Chancellor and Deputy Vice Chancellor for Research at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. It sets a foundation for subsequent articles on supporting efforts to build a targeted research effort at the institution.)

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Joanne Romagni understands the history of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC) as a private, liberal arts institution, and she also understands that the enhanced emphasis on research is a paradigm shift for some of the older faculty.

“We have to help them make the transition, but we also have to look at workforce development and education . . . focusing on areas that will be relevant in five to 10 years,” says UTC’s Vice Chancellor for Research and Dean of the Graduate School.

Whether it is a researcher, program or center director, or administrator, one aspect of UTC’s philosophy about expanding its research, innovation and entrepreneurial activities is to ensure that those efforts positively enhance the educational experience for the student body.

“Students are our priority,” Romagni states emphatically. That emphasis was apparent in earlier articles that we have posted in such as this one with Tony Skjellum talking about the work of the SimCenter or this one about UTC’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship where Libby Santin and Thomas Lyons discussed their efforts.

So, what are the research areas where UTC believes it can fill a particular niche? One is artificial intelligence (AI).

“AI spans the globe of academic areas,” Romagni says, adding, “We have the core faculty to have an undergraduate degree program.”

Reinhold Mann, Deputy Vice Chancellor for Research, jumps in to talk about efforts such as leveraging EPB’s Smart Grid and the “Chattanooga Smart Community Collaborative” that UTC’s Center for Urban Informatics and Progress leads to approach AI from a data analytics perspective. There are also plans for an eight-week, six hours a week online course where students create an AI-based product proposal which can be presented to their internal stakeholders or investors.

Whether it is AI, critical infrastructure, hardened electronics, smart cities, health, or another topic, there is a clear philosophy that is driving the development of UTC’s research activities. One part is internal, the other is external.

“Our role is to bring people together under specific topics,” Romagni says. “If there is interest, we make strategic investments. We have to have something to leverage, and that has to come organically from the faculty.”

Those investments might be described as strategic hires or, in the vernacular of entrepreneurs, seed capital.

“We look at areas where we have expertise, but not necessarily a critical mass,” Romagni explains. Mann adds, “A few people can be transformative,” and that’s what UTC hopes to accomplish as it builds a more robust, interdisciplinary research effort.

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