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February 16, 2023 | Shannon Smith

UT research is turning discovery into impact

The University of Tennessee, Knoxville's research endeavors span every school, college, and field. Work done there is helping East Tennessee become a hub for innovation.

What is innovation now but a corporate buzzword?

For Deb Crawford, it’s the heart of what she does.

“Innovation for me is turning discovery into impact,” she said.

Crawford serves as the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s (UT) Vice Chancellor for Research, Innovation, and Economic Development. She’ll be the first to tell you that research is more than just scientists working in a lab.

“It’s the research, scholarship, and creative work that our faculty and students do across all disciplines, from the Institute for Agriculture, all the way through the School of Art, the College of Architecture and Design, our humanities faculty. It’s really as broad and as deep as you could ever imagine,” she said.

Crawford said that interdimensional approach to research is one thing that sets UT apart as a research institution, of which there are many across the country and world.

Deb Crawford, UTK’s Vice Chancellor for Research, Innovation, and Economic Development.

“We look at the breadth of impact, but we’re also looking at the strengths that we have here on campus,” she said. “We build our research capacity around the intellectual strengths of our faculty. As we grow our research enterprise, we hire more faculty with the skills and expertise that feed our innovation platforms.”

What are those innovation platforms? UT has four, all working to “feed the East Tennessee economy” and move toward the goal of making this region a hub for innovation.

First up, advanced materials and next-generation manufacturing. It’s a field UT excels in between its own programs and a partnership with the Department of Energy’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).

“We’ve designed that focus area because we know that we have translational partners, largely companies who want to work with us and tap the technologies and processes we create here and use them in their companies to create new products and services,” said Crawford.

Next is human health and wellness, where the local impact is noticeable in terms of who researchers are working with, including UT Medical Center, Cherokee Health Systems, Turkey Creek Medical Center, and Covenant Health.

“We take inventions that we create in the university and move them out into healthcare environments that help the health of the people of East Tennessee and more broadly,” said Crawford.

The third innovation pillar is energy, which this region is known for thanks to ORNL.

“We’ve grown that energy research capacity in partnership with the lab actually over many decades, and that continues to thrive today,” said Crawford. Part of that growth includes the UT-Oak Ridge Innovation Institute, which works to strengthen the relationship between the two research powerhouses.

“From grade school students all the way through graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, the UT-Oak Ridge Innovation Institute supports a broad range of education and workforce development activities,” said Crawford.

UT’s fourth and final innovation pillar is artificial intelligence (AI), which directly ties into the first three pillars.

“We’re really thinking about how we harness the power of artificial intelligence in all sectors of the economy. From advanced energy to healthcare to manufacturing to finance, AI is having an impact,” said Crawford.

UT recently hired Lynne Parker as the Director of the AI Tennessee Initiative, which is positioning the University and the state of Tennessee as national and global leaders in the data-intensive knowledge economy. Prior to this role, Parker led national AI policy efforts in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Crawford said Parker’s work can help the area become an AI hub, something the Knoxville Chamber is pushing for to help recruit more computing-oriented companies to the region.

But Crawford is also quick to explain that research isn’t just about science. The humanities and arts play a role in innovation as well, from designing sustainable buildings to looking at societal changes that growth may bring. UT ranks tenth in the country among all universities, public and private, in the number of National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships received

“That’s what distinguishes a strong research university, is that ability to weave together all that knowledge in interesting ways,” said Crawford. “That really distinguishes the institution. That’s what I love about my job.”

As research grows, with plans to expand the UT Research Park at Cherokee Farm, and the push to create more start-ups from discoveries made by university researchers, Crawford said she’s happy to support the researchers in any way she can.

“I love solving problems. I love the unknown. And I get to think globally about the impact of the institution, here in our region, but also far beyond,” she said. “And there’s nothing more invigorating than that.”

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